It’s the kind of situation that many find embarrassing or irritating – you’re out drinking with friends and, after a glass of wine, find yourself blushing. Yet again, you’re left red-faced, ruining any chance of having a decent Instagram photo of that night out with friends.
But as it turns out, having an ugly photo on social media might not be a bad thing – especially when compared to the more serious repercussions of trying to mask that dreaded Asian Flush.
What exactly is the Asian Flush? The condition, which got its nickname because it’s commonly experienced by East Asians such as Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, is the result of a variant gene that causes their bodies to convert alcohol into acetaldehyde at a much faster rate, said Dr Edwin Chng, medical director of Parkway Shenton. At the same time, their bodies may be unable to produce sufficient enzymes to break down acetaldehyde.
It’s that build-up of acetaldehyde that makes your blood vessels dilate, which results in the redness of the face – and even other parts of your body.
RED-FACED? IT’S YOUR BODY’S WARNING SIGN
But aside from how it will make you look, blushing is actually your body’s warning sign. According to Professor Daryl Davies, director of the Alcohol and Brain Research Laboratory at the University of Southern California (USC), it is your body’s way of telling you to slow down your imbibing and start hydrating.
But it’s more than just a matter of rehydration. Acetaldehyde isn’t just the reason for really bad hangovers – it’s also considered a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). This means that the global science community has found sufficient evidence of acetaldehyde’s carcinogenicity – or its ability to induce tumours – in humans. According to Cancer Research UK, “acetaldehyde can cause cancer by damaging DNA and stopping our cells from repairing this damage”.
“Several studies have suggested that genomic differences in enzyme activity may increase an individual's susceptibility to oesophageal cancer as well as oropharyngeal cancer if they drink alcohol,” added Dr Chng.
According to the Cancer Research UK website, the risk happens because “cells and some bacteria in our mouths and gut can convert alcohol into acetaldehyde, too”. In fact, the website noted that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer, whether you drink it all in one go or spread it throughout the week.
THE LOWDOWN ON PATCHES AND ANTIHISTAMINES
But what about the popular “solutions” that supposedly help you deal with the Asian Flush, such as patches and antihistamines? According to experts, these so-called remedies might be questionable, useless or possibly even dangerous.
Among the former is the Redee Patch, which requires you to stick two patches onto your skin 20 to 30 minutes before your first drink. According to its website, it contains glutathione to help your body convert acetaldehyde into harmless acetic acid.
While doctors whom CNA Lifestyle spoke to declined to comment on Redee Patch’s efficacy, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has taken issue with one of its ingredients: N-acetyl cysteine.
According to a spokesperson, it’s a controlled substance under Singapore’s Poisons Act, which means it’s only allowed to be present in registered medicines.
While Redee Patch isn’t regulated by the HSA, it advises consumers to be wary of products with claims that “may either be unsubstantiated or the products could potentially contain potent or banned ingredients which can seriously harm your health”. The agency is also investigating the sale of the product in Singapore and “will take the necessary actions, including removal of postings of this product from local online sales platforms”.
Another method that flush-prone drinkers use before going drinking are antihistamines. But these aren’t the same as the ones taken for allergies, said Professor Terry Mulhern, a senior lecturer in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Melbourne, on The Conversation.
“The drugs we commonly call antihistamines (Zyrtec, Telfast and Claratyne) target the histamine H1 receptor and they have no effect on alcohol-induced facial flushing,” he said, referring instead to those that treat gastric acid reflux, such as Zantac and Tagamet.
“We don’t normally think of these drugs as antihistamines but technically they are, because they block the histamine H2 receptors in the stomach, which are associated with the release of stomach acid,” said Prof Mulhern.
While the use of H2 blockers may allow someone who has the Asian flush to drink higher levels of alcohol, “it’s just not smart,” added Prof Davies on the USC website.
“This is a dangerous practice since the person can end up consuming excess levels of alcohol because they become less aware of the behavioural effects of alcohol for a while.” In extreme cases, it may lead to death due to alcohol-induced poisoning, he added.
Moreover, an over-reliance on antihistamines can also cause you to develop a tolerance for them, and you may require higher doses, or take another pill about four hours later, he added.
So what’s the safer bet to minimise the Asian Flush? Don't drink or if you must, drink moderately. And definitely avoid binge drinking. “Choose drinks with less alcohol content,” said Dr Chng. “Eat before and/or while drinking, and take in plenty of water and/or alternate with non-alcoholic drinks.”
As for worrying about how you’ll look on Instagram, why not try to use a filter instead?