If your face flushes red when you drink alcohol, you might have what people refer to as Asian flush. Sometimes referred to as an alcohol flush reaction or Asian glow, this problem often comes in the way of living a full and fun social life.
The purpose of this article is to help people who flush red from alcohol learn more about what Asian flush is, why it happens and what they can do about it.
Table of Contents
- What is Asian Flush?
- What Causes the Asian Flush?
- Does Asian Flush Only Affect Asians?
- How Do You Know If You Have Asian Flush?
- Can Some Types of Alcohol Make Asian Flush Worse?
- Is Asian Flush an Allergy to Alcohol?
- Is Asian Flush Dangerous?
- Is it Safe to Take Antacids Like Pepcid for Asian Flush?
- What Do People Think About Asian Flush?
- Want to Learn More About Asian Flush?
What is Asian Flush?
Asian flush is when you go red after drinking alcohol. It can happen after as little as one standard drink.
The red face is also accompanied by other Asian flush symptoms such as:
... and a generally bad feeling overall.
Below is an example of a girl experiencing Asian flush:
Image credits: What is Asian Glow? by CBC Radio
There's nothing quite like turning bright red on a hot dinner date or during after-work drinks at your brand new job. I'm sure you agree, it is embarrassing.
Here's another example, this time of a Vox reporter experiencing Asian flush:
Image credits: Asian flush, explained by Vox
If you get a red face like this after alcohol, you'll understand why a lot of people say that drinking alcohol with Asian flush is not fun.
In fact, many people feel that it is embarrassing and can sometimes make it hard to have a full and fun social life.
According to Amitava Dasgupta, PhD and professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center, the effects are often so uncomfortable that people with Asian flush may stop drinking altogether.
You're not alone. Almost 30% of Asians and about 10% of non-Asians experience flushing from alcohol, including the social awkwardness that goes along with it.
Yet, alcohol is a part of how we socialise. Whether it be to celebrate, party or 'wine and dine' a hot date, the pressure to drink is real.
The good news is, a little bit of knowledge is all it takes to begin taking control of your Asian flush and living a full and fun social life.
Understanding why the reaction happens is the first step in knowing how to control it.
In the next section, we will go into a little bit of the biology behind why Asian flush happens.
Don't gloss over this part, it's important!
What Causes The Asian Flush?
Asian flush is caused by an enzyme deficiency, sometimes called ALDH2 deficiency. This deficiency stops the liver from being able to properly break-down alcohol.
Here's how the liver usually breaks down alcohol:
Image credits: That Asian Glow Though by MinuteVideos
Now, compare that to how someone with Asian flush breaks down alcohol:
As you can see, people with Asian flush don't have the enzymes to break-down a toxin called acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde is highly toxic and our bodies react very negatively when exposed to it.
Not having the enzymes to break-down this nasty toxin is the real reason why Asian flush happens.
Therefore, understanding how to break down acetaldehyde is a key step to knowing how to live with Asian flush in a healthy and sustainable way.
Does Asian Flush Only Affect Asians?
No, Asian flush can affect anyone who drinks alcohol. Here is an image that was taken by one of our long-time non-Asian customers of Sunset, Dan P from Gold Coast in Australia:
As you can see, you don't need to be Asian to have Asian flush. The reason the reaction is called 'Asian flush' or 'Asian glow' is that a high proportion of the Asian population is affected.
According to a literature review by scientists at the University of California, Asian flush is experienced by:
- 34% of Korean Americans
- 50% of Chinese Americans
- 29% of Koreans
- 37% of Korean Chinese
- 46% of Japanese
- 34% of Han Chinese and Taiwanese
However, Alcohol flush reaction in Caucasians is not uncommon. In fact, according to a 1986 study looking at the racial differences in alcohol sensitivity, approximately 3 to 29 per cent of Caucasians get a red face from alcohol.
How Do You Know If You Have Asian Flush?
The most common sign that you have Asian flush is if you get a red face after alcohol that looks something like this:
This is also accompanied by an overall negative feeling, sometimes including puffiness around the eyes, headaches, difficulty breathing and rapid heart rate.
Getting Asian flush feels like the exact opposite of how responsible alcohol consumption is supposed to make you feel.
It is almost like getting a hangover immediately after drinking alcohol instead of the next morning.
People who drink socially usually do it to feel relaxed, sociable and perhaps more courageous when approaching someone at a bar.
In contrast, someone experiencing Asian flush is likely to feel physical discomfort, anti-social and too self-conscious about their red face to approach anyone.
We asked Jeik, a member of the SRQ Labs team, what it felt like when he experienced the Asian glow:
“I remember the first time my face went red from alcohol. It was about 15 years ago and I was at a house party trying to get the interest of a girl.
The night was progressing pretty well. We were chatting and all signs were pointing in a positive direction. That was until she offered me a beer. A simple, innocent, cold, refreshing beer.
I downed it with manly gusto, trying to hide the fact that i’d never drunk a full bottle of beer before. Little did I know, this would start a 20 minute count down to me becoming the focus of the room for all the wrong reasons.
It didn’t take long before I began to feel the skin on my face heating up and beginning to tingle. Not long after that it became harder to breath and I could feel my eyes becoming bloodshot.
I could tell something was wrong by the concerned look on the girl's face. Then I heard a voice from across the room yell out “Look how smashed he is!”.
At this point everyone’s eyes were on me, my face was pulsating and quickly becoming the centre of everyone’s attention. “Are you on drugs?” she asked as she distanced herself from the laughing stock of the room.”
What a curse. Alcohol is fundamentally rooted in most societies as a means of celebration, bonding and courtship. A glass of wine on a dinner date, after-work drinks, a client lunch, a bar full of hopeful singles, the list goes on.
The good news is, a little bit of knowledge about Asian flush can go a long way. For example, not all alcohol is created equally when it comes to its effect on the Asian flush.
Can Some Types of Alcohol Make Asian Flush Worse?
Yes, some alcoholic beverages can make the Asian flush reaction a lot worse.
There are many additives used in the production of alcohol that can worsen the effects of flushing.
Many people can experience a sudden alcohol intolerance from these additives and incorrectly assume their Asian flush is to blame.
One example is aged spirits stored in wooden barrels. These spirits contain molecules called tannins that can make flushing worse.
Another example is red wine, which contains high amounts of tannins because of the oak barrels used in its production.
Beer and cider both contain sulfites, which have been shown to cause some people unpleasant symptoms such as headaches and flushing.
If aged spirits, wine and beer are all potential triggers of Asian flush, what is there left to drink?
In answer to this, we have put together a list of low alcohol drinks designed specifically with alcohol flushing in mind.
Whilst an intolerance to some ingredients alcohol can make flushing worse, people often confuse Asian flush with an allergic reaction.
Is Asian Flush an Allergy to Alcohol?
No, Asian flush is not an allergic reaction to alcohol. It is a toxic reaction to an alcohol metabolite called acetaldehyde.
Knowing the difference is vitally important.
According to an article published by the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy:
"In contrast to flushing, irritant and toxic reactions to alcohol, allergic reactions to alcohol are relatively uncommon."
In people with alcohol allergy, as little as 10ml of wine or a mouthful of beer is enough to cause severe rashes, difficulty breathing, stomach cramps or collapse.
Someone with Asian flush is unlikely to experience any symptoms from a sip of beer or 10ml of wine.
Being aware of the differences is important, however seeking medical opinion is also equally important if a real allergy to alcohol is suspected.
Is Asian Flush Dangerous?
The actual symptoms of Asian flush are not dangerous. However, the long-term risks of alcohol consumption can be significantly higher if you have Asian flush.
This is because people with Asian flush can't break-down a toxin called acetaldehyde that enters the body when you drink alcohol.
According to Dr Tan Ek Khoon, a consultant at Singapore General Hospital:
“Acetaldehyde can trigger inflammation in the upper gastrointestinal tract, cause DNA damage, and increase one’s risk for gastrointestinal diseases, namely oesophageal and stomach cancers as well as peptic ulcers,”
In 2009, scientists from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and Japan's Kurihama Alcohol Center conducted a study that founds a link between Asia flush and caner.
This research was subsequently picked up and released to the public by the National Institutes of Health in a press release and further also been confirmed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
With this public health issue in the spotlight, it is surprising that many Asian flush sufferers are unaware of the long-term dangers of Asian flush.
You can read more about the long term dangers of Asian flush in our article titled: Asian Flush Cancer - Debunking the Myth.
Is it Safe to Take Antacids like Pepcid for Asian Flush?
No, it is not safe to take antacids like Pepcid for Asian flush. In fact, medical professionals around the world are warning people to not do this.
The off-label use of antacids like Pepcid has grown in popularity amongst people with Asian flush after a study from the 1980s found a link between antihistamines and flushing.
However, using antihistamines like Pepcid ignores the root cause of the problem. By masking the unpleasant side effects of Asian flush, the body can accumulate more toxins than usual. This shortcut could increase various health risks associated with Asian flush.
This assertion was confirmed in a 1988 study looking at the effect of antihistamines on ethanol metabolism. It found that the active compounds in Zantac and Pepcid had little impact on blood acetaldehyde after drinking alcohol.
This study confirms that the off-label use of these antihistamines is misguided. Experts suggest that this could lead to undetected acetaldehyde accumulation and numerous health complications down the road.
To find out more, please read our article about the dangers of abusing Pepcid AC, Zantac and Zyrtec for Asian flush.
What Do People Think About Asian Flush?
In the biggest Asian flush survey ever conducted, participants shared their thoughts about Asian Flush:
"I am never able to fully enjoy myself as much when I go out compared to my friends with the symptoms I experience from flushing."
Many Asian flush sufferers reported feeling left out or excluded when they turn down an offer for a drink.
In fact, in some cultures turning down an alcoholic beverage can be overtly rude and offensive to the person offering.
To make matters even more uncomfortable, most people are unaware that Asian flush exists.
This lack of awareness can cause people to make incorrect assumptions about the drinker that can potentially cause embarrassment and social awkwardness.
A recent 2018 study analysed data from 2912 undergraduate students from 13 universities in China. The researchers found that only 11.6% of students understood the link between alcohol flushing and impaired alcohol metabolism.
This lack of awareness, especially in western countries, contributes a lot to the social handicap experienced by people with Asian flush.
What to Learn More About Asian Flush?
Not sure where to start? Check out our article that covers all the basics: Your Top Question about Asian Flush ANSWERED.
We completed the first-ever research survey in 2019 asking real people how they felt (and struggled) with Asian Flush: Asian Flush Research Survey 2019
Have Asian Flush but still want to drink sometimes? Check out: The Best Low-Alcohol Drinks For Asian Flush