Alcohol Flush Reaction: The Science Behind the Glow 

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Ever wondered why some people turn red when drinking alcohol?

One possible reason is alcohol flush reaction (AFR). AFR can cause your face, neck, and chest to turn red, and is a common symptom of alcohol intolerance.

What Is Alcohol Intolerance?

glass of pink champagne, alcohol flush reaction
Photo by Mgg Vitchakorn on Unsplash

In a nutshell, alcohol intolerance means your body has a harder time breaking down alcohol, resulting in a build-up of toxins. This can lead to facial flushing and other symptoms.

Alcohol intolerance is genetic and can be passed down through families. In scientific terms, people with alcohol intolerance produce less of an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2—ALDH2 for short. This enzyme plays a significant role in metabolizing and eliminating alcohol from the body. Without it, levels of acetaldehyde—a toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism—can become high enough to cause alcohol flush reaction.

Aside from becoming flushed after drinking, other symptoms of alcohol intolerance include:

  • Stuffy nose and respiratory problems
  • Skin rash or hives
  • Drop in blood pressure and increase in heart rate
  • Digestive problems, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Headaches or migraines

Can You Be Allergic to Alcohol?

Allergies to certain ingredients in alcohol, including, gluten, proteins, chemicals, and preservatives, can happen, and sometimes resemble alcohol intolerance. However, alcohol intolerance is not an alcohol allergy. Alcohol intolerance is linked to your metabolic system, while alcohol-related allergies are linked to your immune system.

Alcohol-related allergies are less common than alcohol intolerance, but their symptoms are usually more severe. In the worst cases, these allergies can be life-threatening, and even a few sips of alcohol can trigger a reaction. Alcohol allergy symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hives
  • Stomach cramps
  • Anaphylactic shock (severe cases)

What Is “Asian Glow?”

Genetic alcohol intolerance appears most commonly in people of East Asian descent—affecting up to 36 percent of people in that region. This has lead to the nickname “Asian glow.” However, while alcohol flush reaction is less common among other ethnicities, it does exist in many parts of the world. Estimates are that up to eight percent of the world population carries this genetic mutation.

Does Pepcid Help With Asian Glow? Is it Safe?

Many people who experience alcohol flush reaction still wish to drink sometimes, especially with friends. One popular strategy for managing AFR symptoms is taking histamine-2 (H2) blockers, like Pepcid, to reduce the reaction.

Although Pepcid is not intended to treat alcohol intolerance, it can reduce symptoms like AFR. By taking Pepcid before drinking, alcohol intolerant people may be able to drink more before their symptoms force them to stop.

However, taking Pepcid to prevent alcohol flush reaction may pose long-term health risks, including higher rates of esophagus and stomach cancer.

How to Prevent Alcohol Flush Reaction

The only way to prevent alcohol flush reaction is to avoid drinking—as even small amounts of alcohol can bring on symptoms.

More importantly, people with the ADHL2 mutation are at higher risk for certain types of cancers—and this risk can increase with greater alcohol consumption. According to some studies, people with the alcohol intolerance gene are up to eight times more likely to develop head and neck cancer than those without it. They are also up to 12 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than the general population.

Therefore, if you are alcohol intolerant, it’s best to be especially mindful of your alcohol consumption.

If you’re having trouble cutting back or controlling your drinking, Ria Health offers flexible, online support from wherever you are. Choose moderation or abstinence, set your own goals, and get a plan customized to your unique needs. Best of all, you can access the whole thing right from your smartphone.

Speak with a member of our team today, or learn more about how it works.


Written By:
Ria Health Team
Our experienced team is committed to transforming alcohol addiction treatment.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Writer specializing in targeted, informative content. Dedicated to making the abstract accessible.
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