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.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.