Is Alcoholism an Allergy to Alcohol? How Should It be Treated?

Is alcoholism an allergy to alcohol? Is it an allergic reaction to alcohol that creates irresistible cravings for more alcohol? Does this allergy cause a loss of control over drinking?

The theory that alcoholism is an allergy is a major part of the Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) belief system. And that of other 12 step programs as well. But is alcoholism an allergy?

Alcoholism as an Allergy

A.A. states that “We are perfectly willing to admit that we are allergic to alcohol and that it is simply common sense to stay away from the source of our allergy.”1 It also asserts that alcoholics have “a mental obsession to drink coupled with a physical allergy to alcohol.”2 AA refers to the “the physical allergy to alcohol” experienced by alcoholics.3 Alcoholics Anonymous (known as The Big Book”) calls alcoholism an allergy a half-dozen times.

From the beginning, the Big Book has included an introductory section by the late Dr. William Silkworth. He presented his allergy theory in it. Silkworth considered alcoholism an allergy. According to Dr. Silkworth’s idea, alcoholics who consume alcohol have an allergic reaction to it. Their body creates substances that cause irresistible cravings for more alcohol and loss of control. Since then, no person, agency, or other organization has found any evidence to support his speculation.

What IS an Allergy?

alcoholism an allergy

Is alcoholism an allergy?

An allergy is a negative physical reaction to some substance (the allergen). It’s often things such as pollen, dust, or certain foods. The negative reactions commonly include such things as difficulty in breathing, eye irritation, rashes, and so on.

Expert Kenneth Anderson notes that “An allergy by definition is a reaction of the immune system to a given chemical. Allergies are easily detected by a skin test.”4 However, there is no skin test for alcoholism. Nor do doctors inject alcoholics with small quantities of alcohol to treat their “allergy.”

Oriental Flushing Reflex

A well-documented allergy (actually an intolerance) to alcohol is  “Oriental flushing reflex.” Asians are most likely to experience it It causes reddening of the skin or flushing, among other symptoms.

Those who suffer this condition quickly experience various unpleasant physiological reactions after drinking even small amounts of alcohol. In addition to flushing, these symptoms can include rapid breathing, itching, strange sensations in the ears, and other symptoms.

The Oriental flushing reflex doesn’t cause suffers to develop an irresistible craving or to want to drink more. The only way to prevent its very unpleasant symptoms is to abstain from drinking any alcohol. That’s because suffers are “allergic” to alcohol and allergies don’t cause cravings. People sometimes cite the Oriental flushing reflex as an explanation for the low rate of alcoholism among Asians.

Similarly, people who are allergic or intolerant to pollen don’t seek out Goldenrod and other sources of pollen to sniff. They avoid all contact with pollen. An allergy to alcohol wouldn’t cause cravings for alcohol. It would cause a desire to avoid it.

Every human produces alcohol naturally within their bodies 24/7. Yet they don’t experiencing any irresistible cravings and loss of control. How does the theory that alcoholism is an allergy explain this fact?

Allergies to Substances often in Alcoholic Beverages

Some people actually have allergies to substances frequently found in alcoholic beverages.

Potential allergens often found in various alcoholic beverages include yeast, wheat, barley, rye, and gluten. Others are hops, sulfites, sulfates, and histamines.

An allergy to sulfites might cause hives or anaphylaxis. One to sulphates might increase asthmatic symptoms in asthmatics. And one to histamines might cause nasal swelling and congestion. Symptoms of allergies to those allergens sometimes found in alcoholic beverages could include headaches, rapid heartbeat, heartburn, nausea, or vomiting.5

Theory Unsupported by Evidence

The A.A. theory that alcoholism is an allergy to alcohol that creates cravings for more alcohol is illogical. A.A.’s theory is inconsistent with medical knowledge about allergies. And it completely lacks any scientific supporting evidence.

How does the allergy theory explain this inconsistent fact? When alcoholics unknowingly drinki alcohol, they do not develop an uncontrollable craving. Nor do they lose control over their consumption of it? However, if they falsely believe that they have consumed alcohol, they report great cravings?

How does the allergy theory explain another highly inconsistent fact? Alcoholic priests regularly drink communion wine without having an irresistible craving for alcohol and a loss of control. Alcoholic priests don’t think they’re drinking alcohol but rather the blood of Christ. The allergy theory’s loss of control is a self-fulfilling prophesy only for those who believe in it.

A.A.’s “Slip”

In 1975, A.A. seemed to have finally accepted the fact that alcoholism is NOT an allergy that causes cravings. It noted that “alcoholism is not a true allergy, the experts now inform us.”6 In reality, it was never the consensus opinion of experts that alcoholism was an allergy. It was only Dr. Silkworth’s illogical and unsupported speculation. And he popularized it in his “The Doctor’s Opinion” in successive editions of A.A.’s “Big Book.”7

Theory Still Supported by A.A.

However, A.A.’s brief recognition was just a “slip.” A.A. never really changed its doctrine that alcoholism is an allergy. It currently asserts that “When the Doctor’s Opinion was written in the 1930’s it was just an opinion. Medical science has progressed since then and has confirmed this opinion as fact.”8 Big Book Sponsorship similarly contends that “Medical Science has found that there is sound reasoning in the ‘Doctor’s Opinion.’” That is, that alcoholism is an allergy.9

An A.A. member wrote that at a recent meeting the group was studying Dr. Silkworth’s opinion found in the “Big Book” that alcoholism is an allergy that causes cravings for more alcohol. When the member informed the group that alcoholism is not a allergy, therenwas very strong disagreement.10 This isn’t surprising. A.A. repeatedly insists that an alcoholic “is allergic to alcohol.”11 Members assert that “Alcoholics are allergic to alcohol….they have an allergic reaction to alcohol, which is unlike anything ever experienced by normal drinkers.”12

Is Alcoholism an Allergy to Alcohol?

No. The theory that alcoholism is an allergy to alcoholism is clearly false. It’s illogical, It lacks any scientific medical evidence. Even worse, it’s inconsistent with the nature of allergies.

The allergy theory of alcoholism is only one of A.A.’s mistaken beliefs. Another, “powerlessness,” may contribute to the general ineffectiveness of A.A. and other 12 step programs. They tend to be counterproductive. Most people find they’re less effective than doing nothing.


An alternative is to choose a free or virtually free non-12 step program. They include these.


Anon. An Alcoholic Can Not Drink in Moderation. How to Survive website.

____. Dr. William Duncan Silkworth: 1873 – 1951. A.A. Grapevine, 1951 (April).

____. Dr. Silkworth’s Rx for sobriety. A.A. Grapevine, 1945 (June). Available at

____. Allergy to alcohol: an alcoholic can not drink in moderation. In: Engle, K., & Williams, T. Effect of an ounce of vodka on alcoholics’ desire for alcohol. Q J Stud Alc, 1972, 33(4), 1099–1105.

Greeley, M. Alcoholism an Allergy. Fort Collins, CO: Chase a Dream, 1996.

Marlatt, G., et al. Loss of control drinking in alcoholics: an experimental analogue. J Ab Psych, 1973, 81(3), 233–241.
Merry, J. The “loss of control” myth. Lancet, 1966, 1(7449), 1257–1258.

Silkworth, W.D. Alcoholism as a manifestation of allergy. Med Rec, 1937 (March 17).

____. The doctor’s opinion. In Alcoholics Anonymous. NY: Works, 1939, p. 1.

Lamm, B. Is alcoholism an allergy? Duke U. Medicine/Share Care website.

S., Danny. Buying the alcoholic “allergy” theory. Cape Cod Today, September 8, 2008.


1. This is A.A. An Introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program.

2. A.A. and the Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic.

3. A Member’s Eye View of Alcoholics Anonymous.

4. Anderson, K. Myths From Drug And Alcohol Rehab.

5. Kerr, M. Alcohol Allergies. HealthLine website, May 4, 2012.

6. A.A. Living Sober. NY: A.A. World Ser, 1975, p. 68.

7. Heather, N., & Robertson, I. Controlled Drinking. NY: Methuen, 1983.

8. The Problem. A.A.-Israel site.

9. The Allergy of the Body and the Obsession of the Mind.  Allergy of the Body.

10. Alcoholism: Disease or Allergy?

11. Allergic to Alcohol? Alcoholism is a Real Disease.

12. Allergy to Alcohol.