Why do some wines cause a flushing or redness on the face and neck?

Aug 20, 2009

Q: Why do some wines cause a flushing or redness on the face and neck?

A: There are many reasons that a wine could cause facial flushing, ranging from alcohol or sulfite content to a medical condition known as rosacea. The most common reason for a glass of wine to make someone’s face turn red is what is known as alcohol flush reaction. People who have alcohol flush reaction do not have enough of the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol in their bodies. As a result, when they drink alcohol, they get an excess accumulation of acetaldehyde, a component of alcohol, which is responsible for flushing or swelling of the skin accompanied by itching or irritation, headaches and/or light-headedness. Anecdotal evidence suggests that taking heartburn medication such as Zantac or Pepcid prior to consuming alcohol may alleviate these symptoms, but always consult your doctor before taking any medication in conjunction with alcohol.

Sulfites used in the winemaking process are another cause of facial flushing, though their effects tend to be overestimated in most cases. Sulfites are naturally present in many things we consume, including wine. Most winemakers add additional sulfites to wine for protection against oxidation and bacterial spoilage. However, for those allergic to sulfites, their presence can cause skin irritation and headaches as well. Any wine having sulfites in excess of 10 parts per million is legally required to bear the label "contains sulfites." Some organic and biodynamic wines have lower sulfite counts.

Finally, rosacea, a medical condition that affects the skin of the face, neck and occasionally chest, is also aggravated by alcohol consumption. Rosacea outbreaks are typically brought on by exposure to heat, stress and consumption of alcohol, but aside from that rosy glow, is typically harmless. As always, it's best to consult your physician or dermatologist to find out which of these causes is the most likely culprit.

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