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What is the ‘Asian glow’ and why does it happen when I drink alcohol?

“When I drink alcohol, even a very small amount, I go bright red. It starts from the bottom of my neck and across my face, particularly my cheeks. It’s really embarrassing. A friend says it’s because I’m Asian (my parents are from China) – is that true. If so, why does it happen?”

This is often referred to as the ‘Asian glow’ or ‘Asian flush’ and it is believed to affect approximately 450 million people worldwide. For some it can be quite a mild effect and not necessarily be noticed by those around them but for others it can be quite extreme and become quite embarrassing. Those of East Asian descent are most likely to experience this condition, particularly those from a Chinese, Japanese or Korean background, with some experts believing that almost 40% of those populations could be affected. There are non-Asians who report the same experience but it is far less common.

It is caused by a genetic mutation that is believed to have first appeared 10,000 years ago in southern China. This causes an enzyme that helps break down alcohol (ALDH2) to be less efficient or inactive. As a result, when a person drinks alcohol the toxins that would usually be broken down and excreted start to build up in their body usually resulting in facial flushing (redness in the face and neck). Some people can also experience nausea, itching and in extreme cases, restricted breathing. The good news is that this genetic mutation has no other serious consequences and there is now evidence that suggests those affected may ‘grow out of it’ later in life.

However, it is important to remember that this condition is caused by a build-up of toxins. Those without this mutation would have their bodies break these down and flush them out of their system relatively quickly. Research has found that high concentration of these toxins can actually damage DNA and has been linked to a range of alcohol-related cancers, particularly oesophageal cancer. If you experience the ‘Asian glow’ it’s really important to listen to your body. When you begin to go red, it’s telling you to stop, or at the very least, reduce your drinking.

Not surprisingly, some young people look for ways to prevent this redness. Although the internet claims there are remedies, with some appearing to successfully ‘mask’ the flushing effect, experts warn that the toxins are still likely to be building up and long-term damage could be occurring.

First published: May 2020
Reviewed and updated: October 2023

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