I had a mentor in graduate school who had a one-drink limit at parties because he would immediately get "alcohol flush," aka a reddening of the cheeks when drinking alcoholic beverages. But according to a new study, that flush might mean your body gets impacted by alcohol in a potentially scary way. If you don't suffer from alcohol flush (also known as gin blossoms) but have ever take the vitamin Niacin — which induces flushing and tingly sensations on the skin — then you know how uncomfortable it can be. However, for people who do experience alcohol flush after drinking, the resulting DNA damage could increase their risk of cancer, Anya Topiwala, a clinical researcher who studies the affects of alcohol, but was not involved in the study, told HuffPost.
The scientific journal Nature reported that alcohol flush is the result of a gene mutation. "Alcohol exposure in such individuals may cause DNA [damage] and chromosome rearrangements," the study explained. "This large population may also be susceptible to alcohol-induced age-related blood disorders." Other symptoms of the gene mutation include rapid heartbeat, nausea, and headache. Research conducted on mice with the alcohol flush gene mutation found that they were more likely to suffer DNA damage from alcohol.
On its website, USC Health explained alcohol flush happens when alcohol or ethanol is broken down or converted in the liver to acetaldehyde, which is a toxic compound that induces feeling hungover. In people who don't experience alcohol flush, acetaldehyde is quickly transformed to harmless acetate and water. While certain antihistamines can prevent symptoms of alcohol flush, that doesn't stop the DNA damage or lower the risk for cancer.
"Using histamine-2 blockers to reduce the [alcohol flush] can escalate alcohol intake and increase the risk of stomach cancers, esophageal cancer and a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma,” Daryl Davies, a professor in the Titus Family Department of Clinical Pharmacy at the USC School of Pharmacy, said. "The use of H2 blockers may allow someone suffering from [alcohol flush] to drink higher levels of alcohol, but this person shouldn’t do that. It’s just not smart."
By using antihistamines to reduce symptoms of flushing, the absence of symptoms could delay people from seeking treatment. For those who suffer from the gene mutation, their bodies can't break down alcohol the same as people without the mutation, which means toxins can accumulate in the liver, according to USC Health.
"They’re turning red for a reason: Acetaldehyde is in their system,” Sean Nordt, a toxicologist and an associate professor of clinical emergency medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, explained on USC Health. "This is their body telling them to stop drinking immediately. I know it’s frustrating for people because it may be challenging being surrounded by people who drink often."
While anyone can experience alcohol flush, Business Insider reported that the gene mutation is thought to originate among the Han Chinese, in central China. "Over the centuries, it has spread throughout East Asia. An estimated [one-third] of East Asians have it." Aside from increased risk of cancer, alcohol flush is just plain unpleasant.
"I have two copies of that deficient gene. Here's what happens when I drink a single glass of red wine: my whole body from face to the waist becomes red (like a severe sunburn), my skin becomes so itchy to the point of being painful and having a real hard time to sleep," Reddit user encapsulationdot1q explained. "If I make the mistake of scratching, it's even more painful. It's like if the alcohol+blood is trying to get out of my body throughout my skin."
Another Reddit user who has alcohol flush wrote that they thought everyone experienced face reddening and increased heart rate when drinking. It's important to note that these symptoms are not normal, and those who do not have alcohol flush do not feel this way when drinking alcohol. And, unfortunately — because there is no cure — if you do have alcohol flush, your best bet is to abstain from alcohol altogether.