Sulfite Headaches: Fact or Fiction?

Sulfites in wine do not cause headaches.  Now that that’s out of the way for people who only read the first line, let’s go into more detail.  According to a Wall Street Journal article from October 2000, “Sulfites can cause allergy and asthma symptoms, but don’t cause headaches.”  The entire article is here.

But what are sulfites?  And why in the world would anyone add them to perfectly good wine?  Well, people discovered hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago that sulfur was a very good cleansing and antibacterial agent.  It also prevents oxygen molecules from reacting with food, acting as a preservative.  It is found not only in wine, but also in dried fruit, eggs, beer, soft drinks, cookies, crackers, shrimp, lobster, French fries, juices, syrups, pickled things, noodles, and the list goes on and on.  Check out the list for yourself here.


Approximately 1% of the population of the United States is allergic to sulfites.  As a result, FDA requires labels on wine and other consumables to have a sulfite statement if it contains more than 10 parts per million. Sulfite allergies, according to WebMD, take the form of:  hives, itchiness, upset stomach, trouble swallowing, flushing, dizziness, drop in blood pressure or trouble breathing. Notice a symptom missing? 

So what causes headaches when drinking wine? While there is no consensus, it does have a name:  RWH (Red Wine Headache) Syndrome.  According to my favorite source, Wikipedia, there are four different compounds which may be the culprit:  histamines, tannins, prostaglandins and tyramine. 

In my research and personal experience there is only one surefire way to avoid the dreaded RWH:  drink quality wine in moderation.  And water.


Bill Dahl, wine consultant at ABC Fine Wine & Spirits – Lakeland

Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebilld

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