Asian Flush: Why I Turn Red When I Drink Alcohol

Growing up, I would always laugh at my dad after he drank a beer or a glass of wine. He is Thai-Chinese and even one drink makes his face turn bright red. "You're red!" I'd say, pointing and laughing. It never stopped being funny.

Until the first time I drank alcohol. My face turned beet-red and felt feverishly hot. It wasn't funny at all.

I had unfortunately inherited my father's lack of the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase, which helps metabolize alcohol in the liver. It's a genetic condition commonly found in people of East Asian descent, hence the name "Asian flush." With this condition — also called alcohol flush reaction — even as little as one drink can cause increased heart rate, headache, nausea and that telltale blush in the afflicted.

The good news is that our inability to metabolize alcohol is thought to lead to a decreased incidence of alcoholism, since it is hard to be a heavy drinker when two cocktails has you passed out on your barstool. The bad news is that this condition has been linked to a much higher risk of deadly esophageal cancer for those who drink alcohol despite the unpleasant effects, particularly for those who drink heavily.

I've learned to live with the condition. After ten years of moderate drinking, my face has stopped turning quite so crimson and hot at cocktail parties, which supports the claim that repeated exposure to alcohol eventually lessens the effects. (Some say taking heartburn medicine like Pepcid AC before a night of drinking also helps, but I've never tried this.) I still turn a little pink, but apparently it is no longer so noticeable that people feel the need to point and say, "You're so red!"

So should you find yourself drinking with an Asian friend who isn't so lucky, remember there's no need to tell her she is red. Her burning-hot face, pounding heart and creeping nausea have already told her everything she needs to know. She's red — so what?

Do you know anyone who experiences alcohol flush reaction? Any tips for managing it?

Related: No, I'm Not a Wine Drinker: 3 Social Tips from a Teetotaler

(Image: Iurii Davydov/Shutterstock)

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