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March 25th, 2009
03:48 PM ET

Why the red face? Alcohol flush could mean increased cancer risk

By Madison Park
Writer/Producer CNNhealth.com

Immediately after taking a few sips of an alcoholic drink, I have an almost cartoonish reaction. I burn up and turn scarlet – my whole face, forearms and neck.

My response to alcohol is so strong that a martini is enough to make me vomit, and half a bottle of beer makes me ill. Don’t even get me started about wine.

The facial flush, also known as “the Asian glow,” is a fairly common reaction to alcohol amongst East Asians. They turn red, feel nauseated, get swollen and their heartbeats race. I liken the experience to turning into a bright red disco ball. Some people get so embarrassed about this reaction to alcohol, they pop in Pepcid AC, which many people say helps mask the red face.

Researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and Japan's Kurihama Alcohol Center found that individuals who get the redness after drinking alcohol are at greater risk for developing esophageal cancer.

About eight percent of the world’s population has this genetic condition (Thanks, Mom and Dad), where the body lacks an enzyme that properly breaks down alcohol.

This missing enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 metabolizes alcohol into acetate, which is non-toxic - so the remaining 92 percent of the world can drink with normal facial color.

But when I drink, the alcohol turns into acetaldehyde, which is a chemical that causes DNA damage and has cancer-promoting effects. That causes the facial flush, according to scientists from NIAAA.

Researchers whose work was published this week in PLoS Medicine say that people who have the facial flush and continue to drink are six to 10 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer, compared with someone without the genetic condition who is drinking the same amount.

And esophageal cancer carries a five-year survival rate of 12 to 31 percent.

For Lent, I gave up alcohol and I don’t miss the headaches, redness, or vomiting. So this might become permanent, because I think my body is trying to tell me something.

Do you have strange reactions to alcohol? How do you deal with it? And has this deterred you from drinking?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. Chelsea

    I am a 24 year old female of Russian and Dutch descent and I used to just get a little fluch after having a few drings but in the last year if i take even 1 sip of alcohol my face turns bright red and hot and its almost like i can feel my heart beat in my gums. I have never used alcohol irresponsibly in the past and it would be nice to have a few drinks every now and again without turning into a lobster. I just dont understand why I am the only russian in the worls who cant have a drink... I just want an answer.

    October 13, 2011 at 21:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tess

      Hi Chelsea, I am also of Russian descent (on both Mother and Father sides) I get very red and hot in my face when I drink alcohol, very uncomfortable and embarrassing, I do not drink much or often and sometimes although rarely I do not have a reaction at all. I do not feel the rapid heartbeat probably because I am on a calcium channel blocker due to a heart arrythmia. I wonder if there is a link between our Russian descent because when my Mother was alive she told me that many many years ago because Russia borders Mongolia there were many Mongolian/Russian marriages and susequent children so we probably have Asian blood in our lineage. I wonder if this is the "Asian Flush" that ther refer too?? Good luck!! I hope we find something that we can safely take to minimize this!! I sure would like to be able to have a little champagne on New Years Eve!! :-)

      December 22, 2011 at 23:56 | Report abuse |
    • Vikrant Varpe (Pune-India)

      Hi All, I guess we all have same problems after consuming a glass of Alcohol. The common problems are Rapid Increase in Heartbeat, severe headache, reddish eyes and restlessness. Believe me or not we may are suffering from a bacterial disease called "Helicobacter pylori" and or "Esophageal cancer" links pasted. Please go through the attached links and also, please see he doctor as soon as possible to get rid of this problems. Please keep me posted/updated wih reviews from all.
      Thanks and take care all. (Vikrant.varpe@hotmail.com)

      Link:Helicobacter pylori: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helicobacter_pylori
      Link: Esophageal cancer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esophageal_cancer

      July 19, 2013 at 16:47 | Report abuse |
  2. Pradip Raj Baral

    i am 27 years old male of Nepal. I am having a problem of heart beat. My face turns red, heart beats and start to sweat. I cannot face the mass. I am having such problem from my child hood. I tried to recover it by thinking of nervousness. But I think it will always not be the cause of nervousness. What is the cause of this problem could u tell me solution ASAP?

    October 22, 2011 at 03:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Bobby

    I have drank alcohol every day 20 years, and always get flushed. I am still alive. Live for tommorrow and you are a day too late.

    November 16, 2011 at 21:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. steve

    I have this problem but understand it is an allergic reaction. If I take a shower it clears up. I have never spoken to a doctor about it, but if I was that concerned about it I would just stop drinking. Although I am a regular drinker I do not feel compelled to invest time into this as it cuts into my drinking time.

    February 5, 2012 at 22:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pranab

      Same thing happened with me, doctor said most provably its because of allergy however should go for several test. is it nesesory ?

      June 5, 2014 at 14:57 | Report abuse |
  5. Pol

    Just drank a 1/4 of a glass of wine (4.5% alcohol content only)... got red (face only)... got hot (head to neck)... should I be concern ?

    February 17, 2012 at 05:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. HANSEL

    WHEN EVER I HAVE A SIP OF BEER OR WHISKEY OR ANY ALCOHOL MY FACE BECOMES RED,I HAVE A HEAVY HEART BEAT, FEEL LIKE VOMITING AND ALSO FEEL VERY SLEEPY, BUT THIS ONLY HAPPENS SOMETIMES...EARLIER I HAD NO PROBLEM DRINKING...WHY TOES THIS HAPPEN.?AM I BEEN GIVEN SOME MEDICINES TO STOP DRINKING?PLEASE HELP

    March 12, 2012 at 03:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Monica

    Oh wow. I had no idea so many people have the same problem. I can't get half-way through one drink before I start heating up. I can literally feel the heat coming off my cheeks without touching them. I get so red and I thought I was the only one who gets so embarrassed over the look it gives me. It has stopped me from drinking completely as I am a lead singer and the alcohol makes me look like I just ran a marathon in all the pictures!!! I hate it! I too wish I could have one or two drinks without people asking, "Are you ok?" FYI I'm of mexican decent. And it seems to get worse with age.

    June 26, 2012 at 00:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Anthony

    I too have this problem. My face turns red, warm and pulsates very fast. On weekends I will be fine the first night but on the second night it will happen after a couple of hours. Consuming a lot of water usually calms it down but then I become sober. This happened to me for the first time when I was 26 and I was on vacation. I buy into the theory that my body has trouble breaking down the acids from alchohol. Any help for stopping this would be much appreciated!!

    September 3, 2012 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Vikrant Varpe (Pune-India)

      Hi All, I guess we all have same problems after consuming a glass of Alcohol. The common problems are Rapid Increase in Heartbeat, severe headache, reddish eyes and restlessness. Believe me or not we may are suffering from a bacterial disease called "Helicobacter pylori" and or "Esophageal cancer" links pasted. Please go through the attached links and also, please see he doctor as soon as possible to get rid of this problems. Please keep me posted/updated wih reviews from all.
      Thanks and take care all. (Vikrant.varpe@hotmail.com)

      Link:Helicobacter pylori: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helicobacter_pylori
      Link: Esophageal cancer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esophageal_cancer

      July 19, 2013 at 16:46 | Report abuse |
  9. James

    Hey,
    I tried it different pills, but it almost did not work. One day I began to flush a little less, but then it all came back as before. Now I'm taking anti-flush pills "NoGlo" for almost a month. Now I still get a little red, but I don’t flush so badly as before and I generally feel better!

    December 21, 2012 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Melanie May

    My face turns bright red at 3 p.m.everyday. I have never been able to figure out why.It stays red for hours just my cheeks nose and neck and chest. Has been a life long problem. I blushed heavy as a young woman. I would be courious as to exactly why?

    December 21, 2012 at 15:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hmr

      It could be an increase in blood pressure causing the redness in the afternoon. I would get one of those portable cuffs and take your pressure in the morning after you've been up for a half hour or so, before lunch and whenever you feel the flushing start as well as right before bed. If your bp is higher in the afternoon it should be obvious from the numbers.

      January 16, 2013 at 21:18 | Report abuse |
  11. Jette

    For me I think that I have discovered the link between my face flushing when I drink and acid reflux. I'm thinking that the lining of my esophagus is irritated by the alcohol causing the flushing or redness in my face and chest. If I take my acid reducing medicine I don't seem to have issues with drinking alcohol and flushing.

    January 10, 2013 at 22:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Susanne

    It's because it has to do with ur acid levels, get a bit of liptis paper and test urself it should be 7,45 if lower then u have a problem, u can google PH or acid and it will all pop up, u r so acidic that the minute u drink the acid burns in ur body and comes up to the skin, it comes out differently on people and urs just comes out like that, if u leave it to long it will course lots of damage to ur body, u could drink when u were younger cus ur body wasn't so bad but thru all the crap food of today ur body has gotten weaker and weaker and the acid has gotten worse, sad as it is this is what people r doing to their bodies, please google it and look after urself cus it can get so bad that it could be to late, cancer can only grow in acid, if ur PH is balanced u won't get cancer even if it is in ur family, candida can only grow in acid as parasites and worms etc all the bad that gets in ur body without u even knowing even getting sick if u have a balanced PH AND lots of good probiotics that keep ur gut healthy (eat kefir) then u will be able to stay healthy ( of course eating lots of fruit and veg) and fight off anything going around, good luck everybody and please remember to love ur body and look after it..........

    June 19, 2013 at 11:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Susanne

    Oh u turn red cus of what u have been eating that day, like ur morning coffee or some sort of acidic food that u r adding to ur already acidic body and its to much for ur body to flush out and has no alkaline left to neutralize it, please everybody just google acid and learn for urself, taking anti acid tablets r even worse and it won't heal the prob just a quick fix, oh FYI bicarbonate of soda is a cheap way of getting ur body right but please remember u can not do it long term and googling that will give u all the reasons too, guys get out there and teach urself that ur PH is number one and also good probiotics and it will help u lots, good luck

    June 19, 2013 at 11:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. rose

    Oh this sounds alarming, I thought the reason why your face turns red when drinking alcohol is because of the allergic reaction. Now I'm scared, never thought that alcohol can damage my DNA. Thanks for the post now, I'll have to think twice before taking a shot. – Rose @ rosacea-treatment.org

    July 8, 2013 at 01:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Joe

    I was never a big fan of alcoholic drinks until I went abroad to study in England. Only then did I discover my personal affliction towards this Asian flush! Looks like I have to think twice before getting a drink from now on.

    July 9, 2013 at 03:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Vikrant Varpe (Pune-India)

    Hi All, I guess we all have same problems after consuming a glass of Alcohol. The common problems are Rapid Increase in Heartbeat, severe headache, reddish eyes and restlessness. Believe me or not we may are suffering from a bacterial disease called "Helicobacter pylori" and or "Esophageal cancer" links pasted. Please go through the attached links and also, please see he doctor as soon as possible to get rid of this problems. Please keep me posted/updated wih reviews from all.
    Thanks and take care all. (Vikrant.varpe@hotmail.com)

    Link:Helicobacter pylori: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helicobacter_pylori
    Link: Esophageal cancer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esophageal_cancer

    July 19, 2013 at 16:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Go To URL

    I just like the helpful info you supply on your articles.
    I'll bookmark your blog and check again here regularly. I'm somewhat sure
    I will learn many new stuff right right here!
    Best of luck for the next!

    July 22, 2013 at 11:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. thefuneralbizz

    I have been searching for an answer to this for sometime. I can take one sip of anything, beer, wine etc.. and there it is. I get hot and flush on face and neck, feel very uncomfortable, the uncomfortable feeling is all over, like someone else mentioned, like a restless feeling. When i was younger i use to drink all the time with no issues at all, in my 20's and early 30's. Once i had a hysterectomy (total hysterectomy inc ovaries), at 36, that is when i noticed i could not drink anymote without feeling bad. I asked my doctors about it and they just shrug it off! I asked if it could have anything to do with hormones since i am now on hormone replacement therapy. The only answer i got was, ' estrogen can cause alot of changes'. Well, that didnt help! I am Italian/Welsh/Polish-Russian. I noticed a few others said they were Russian, my great granparents, my great grandfather was Russian and great grandmother Polish. I wish i could find an exact answer...as do most everyone here.

    November 23, 2013 at 11:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Pranab

    Same thing happened with me, doctor said most provably its because of allergy however should go for several test. He prescribed few medicines so once i discontinue medicines eyes truns into red and have to open my mouth and breath

    June 5, 2014 at 15:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Asian Flush Help Center

    Hello all, this is a really great discussion and thank you to CNN for providing such a forum for people with this embarrassing disorder. The first thing you need to do as a sufferer is inform yourself about Asian flush. This article is a great start and if you are seeking further info we would recommend the Wikipedia articles posted earlier in the discussion along with this simplified overview (http://www.theasianflush.com/alcohol-flush-reaction/).

    June 5, 2014 at 15:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Red faced Caucasian African

    My friend and I are drinking as we speak. We are from Dutch and Scottish heritage, although my friend speaks a little Swahili slang. She said not to worry about Asian flush as we are not Asian and she said hakuna Matata.

    June 8, 2014 at 09:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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