Alcohol flush reaction (AFR) is a genetic mutation that can cause a deeply flushed appearance with consumption of even very small amounts of alcohol. AFR can cause other, more severe symptoms, including increased heart rate, swelling of the skin, and vomiting. In rare cases, this condition has been known to be fatal. It is common among people of Asian descent, and has attracted the common name "Asian glow," even though people of non-Asian descent are sometimes born with the genetic mutation that causes it. Affected persons generally don't produce one of the enzymes crucial to the metabolization of alcohol, or produce it only in very small amounts.
Enzymes within the normal human body help to break down alcohol so that it can be processed by the liver. When alcohol is initially consumed, an enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) usually breaks that alcohol down into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is normally toxic and carcinogenic, but the normal body produces an enzyme known as aldehyde dehydrogenase-2 (ALDH-2). ALDH-2 can break acetaldehyde down into acetic acid, which is considered virtually harmless.
People suffering from the genetic mutation that causes alcohol flush reaction usually don't have enough ALDH-2. There are different degrees of alcohol flush reaction. Some people may be able to consume several alcoholic beverages before experiencing a reaction, while others will experience a reaction upon consuming even the tiniest sip of alcohol.
Alcohol flush reaction typically worsens as acetaldehyde accumulates within the body. It often first causes the skin of the head, neck and face to flush. Skin can become deeply flushed, and the flushing might extend to the rest of the body.
Further symptoms of alcoholic flush reaction can be more severe. Skin may become blotchy in appearance and might swell. Dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue, and headaches can occur. Blood pressure might suddenly drop. Rapid heart rate, vomiting and bleeding in the stomach can occur. If individuals suffering alcoholic flush reaction drink too much alcohol, the reaction can be severe enough to cause death.
Because alcoholic flush reaction generally occurs as a genetic mutation, an effective treatment has not yet been established. Persons affected by this condition often seek out remedies, but there is currently no scientific evidence to confirm the efficacy of any of these treatments. Physicians do believe that consuming alcohol with alcohol flush reaction can greatly increase the risk of cancer, and most people affected by AFR are strongly advised to avoid alcohol altogether.