Your face turns red when you drink alcohol because of the dilation of blood vessels in the face. Often referred to as an alcohol flush reaction, this is one of more recognisable signs of an alcohol intolerance and can happen for a variety of reasons.
The human body is a marvellously complex system. But did you know that our bodies also communicate with us? Indeed, our bodies can inform us of when an organ is not functioning correctly or when something compromises its flawless performance.
When your face turns red after you drink alcohol, what does your body want to tell you? Is this a sign that something is wrong?
What is a red face from alcohol telling you?
Intense redness and red flushes on the cheeks (and sometimes on the neck and shoulders) indicates that the body cannot efficiently process the ingested alcohol. The physical reaction is the body's way of telling us that it is not metabolising alcohol properly, explains Amitava Dasgupta, PhD, a professor in the pathology and laboratory medicine department at The University of Texas Health Science Center.
Because one of the most common, and most noticeable, symptoms are a red face, many mistakenly confuse it for a skin condition or skin problem. However, a red face from alcohol is far more profound than just at skin-level issue and results from a malfunction in the metabolism of alcohol.
While often handed down through families from generation to generation, the alcohol-related facial redness can happen to those with various skin tones, nationalities and ages.
Are there any other symptoms that go with the red face?
A lot of people experience a variety of other effects along with their red faces such as:
A lot of these might sound like hangover symptoms that people experience a day after drinking alcohol. However, for some, these symptoms occur immediately after drinking alcohol. In extreme cases, they can happen after just a few sips.
Check out this video from Chastity Vicencio (@chastity_v) about her experience with turning red from drinking alcohol:
Why do we get a red face from alcohol?
We know that consuming alcohol affects blood pressure, but that’s not the primary reason why people get a red face when they drink an alcoholic beverage. The actual reason why your face turns red is because of its inability to metabolise certain toxins in alcohol.
When we drink, our body uses the liver to break down and metabolise the alcohol. While it’s doing that, it produces a toxin called acetaldehyde, which is further broken down into non-toxic acetic acid. The acetic acid is eventually broken down into carbon dioxide and water.
For people who go red from alcohol, the process gets paused right after the alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde. This toxin accumulates and takes a long time to get out of the body’s system. As it builds up, it causes unpleasant and uncomfortable symptoms before the body can get rid of it.
The proper metabolism of alcohol gets paused because of a defect in liver enzymes. The first enzyme is responsible for turning alcohol into acetaldehyde. Furthermore, the second one converts the acetaldehyde into CO2 and water.
In the case of people who go red from alcohol, both enzymes don’t function properly. The first one works too fast, while the second one does not work at all.
Therefore, the alcohol quickly turns into toxic acetaldehyde and is converted into harmless CO2 and water.
Instead, acetaldehyde accumulates in the body, causing a red face and other symptoms mentioned above.
Not only does this reaction cause uncomfortable and embarrassing symptoms, but it also comes with a health risk of accumulating too much toxic acetaldehyde in the body.
“If you are Asian and drink alcohol frequently, you may have a higher risk of getting stomach or oesophageal cancer" or peptic ulcers due to a genetic inability to efficiently process acetaldehyde, a toxic by-product of alcohol metabolism,” explains Dr Tan Ek Khoon, a consultant at the Department of Hepato-pancreato-biliary and Transplant Surgery at Singapore General Hospital.
Like we mentioned before, your body is sending you a clear signal that something is wrong by triggering the red facial flushing.
How to not go red in the face when you drink alcohol
There is no solution for the underlying genetic cause of these symptoms. However, there are a couple of methods that people commonly use to manage them.
Limit alcohol intake
"If flushing bothers you, and you know alcohol is a trigger, the easiest and most cost-effective solution is to avoid it,” explains dermatologist Alok Vij, MD in an article about alcohol and flushing.
Limiting alcohol intake and consuming light-coloured, chilled drinks like white wine or champagne often works well. The risk of blushing will be lower because there will be less alcohol needing to be broken down.
The cold beverages are also likely to be consumed much slower, allowing the body enough time to process the alcohol.
However, this technique will not get rid of the problem altogether. It may be less intense, but it’s not a solution.
Off-label use of antacids
Some people choose to reduce their red face from alcohol by using antihistamines usually intended to calm stomach acids. However, they are many reasons why this is not a good idea.
Consuming alcohol while using an antihistamine can be dangerous, as they can increase the blood alcohol content. This effect can cause one to get drunk faster than usual.
Even though it might reduce redness, blood alcohol levels will be allowed to rise much higher than usual. Also, antihistamines do not reduce the toxins in your system. Therefore, they will continue to build up while you drink and pose various health risks.
According to the results of the largest alcohol flush reaction survey, 57% of responders tried using an antacid called Pepcid AC to minimise their symptoms.
You can read more here about the risks of using Pepcid AC, Zantac and other antacids for Asian flush.
The third way in which you can stop a red face from alcohol is by using supplements that regulate and reverse the flushing. A good supplement should tackle the problem at 3 levels:
The first level should work to aid the body’s natural defences against the metabolic toxins that cause your red face.
The second level should provide a robust defence against inflammation. This layer of protection ensures the small number of toxins that slip through don’t cause the blood vessels in your face to react and turn red.
Finally, the compounds necessary for the first two layers of defence to work need to protect against being depleted by the alcohol you consume. This problem requires a third and final layer of protection to counteract alcohol-induced depletion of the body’s flush-fighting compounds and ensure optimal performance of the formula as a whole.
To find out more, you may like this article about the Science Behind Asian Flush Prevention.