Does 'blushing' while drinking wine indicate an alcohol allergy?

Oct 8, 2015

Q: Many people believe they are allergic to wine or alcohol because of a very distinctive side effect they experience when they drink: alcohol "flush," typified by a blushing reaction. But what exactly is this "flush," and does it indicate that the affected person is allergic to alcohol?

A: There are myriad reasons for your face to blush after consuming alcohol. One major reason is an inherited deficiency in an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2. The lack of this enzyme means that individuals with this genetic trait are unable to process one of the byproducts created when the body metabolizes alcohol: acetaldehyde. The accumulation of acetaldehyde appears as a red flush or glow on the face. Because this genetic tendency is common in Asian individuals, this alcohol blush is often called "Asian flush" or "Asian glow."

While this enzyme deficiency is not a true allergy, some scientists believe that some people who experience this "blushing" side effect are also experiencing an allergic reaction separate from dehydrogenase deficiency. Some individuals may experience alcohol flush because of allergens that are present in wine or used in processing wine, such as for clarifying the liquid. In addition, rosacea, a skin condition that causes facial flushing and acne-like bumps, can be aggravated by alcohol.

If you have noticed that your skin is sensitive to wine consumption, you can take preventative steps to alleviate this symptom. According to Dr. Devi Nampiaparampil, clinical associate professor of rehabilitation medicine and media spokesperson for NYU Langone Medical Center, "Eating food—especially carbohydrates—at the same time can help you avoid this reaction. Carbohydrates absorb alcohol and prevent it from accumulating in the bloodstream. Sometimes, taking heartburn medications like ranitidine and famotidine an hour before drinking can help."

But before trying any of these methods, talk to your physician about any alcohol-induced reactions you've experienced.—Douglas DeJesus

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