Updated: Apr 13
You probably have met someone of Asian descent at a party turning bright red after just one drink or one shot. Chances are they have alcohol flush reaction (AFR), or more commonly known as Asian flush or Asian glow. About 30-50% of East and Southeast Asians, myself included, suffer from AFR due to deficiency of aldehyde dehydrogenase, an enzyme required to break down alcohol. Symptoms can include redness in the face and body, itchy skin, nausea and vomiting, racing heartbeat, difficult breathing, headache, etc. In my case, I start turning bright red after a couple sips, get quite tipsy after half a drink, and likely need to sit down after a full one. Most of my friends are surprised that I have never had a hangover or blackout from drinking. Well, this is TMI but the sad truth is that if I drink to a certain point, I would feel extremely sick and nauseous and end up having to throw up.
Asian flush sounds like a cute thing, is it even dangerous?
Sometimes when people just learned about me having Asian flush and my extremely low tolerance, they often joke that I’m lucky to not have to spend a fortune on alcohol. Well yes, I appreciate not having to order drinks after drinks to get a buzz at bars and in general, people suffering from AFR have lower than average rates of alcoholism. However, for those with AFR who do drink, their risk of having esophageal cancer is 6-10 times higher. There has also been research showing that Asian flush mutation may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
Is there a cure for Asian glow – you may wonder? The party trick that most with AFR resort to is to take antihistamine such as Pepcid AC, Zantac, or Zyrtec before drinking. While these OTC antihistamines help alleviate symptoms of Asian glow, they don’t address the underlying causes. Additionally, prolonged use of Zantac or Pepcic combined with alcohol can lead to toxin build-up and increased risk of esophageal cancer.