Red Face After Drinking? A Dead Giveaway of Alcohol’s Damaging Effects

A woman who can’t break down acetaldehyde gets a red face after drinking.

It doesn’t happen to everyone, but for some people, going out and having drinks results in a deeply flushed face. Why? Because their bodies are not fully able to process the alcohol they consume, so an alcohol-related chemical called acetaldehyde builds up in their bodies. It’s the acetaldehyde that triggers the flushed face.

What you really should know about acetaldehyde is that a red face is truly the very least of your worries. It’s all the other damage being done to your organs and cells that is truly worrisome.

Where Does Acetaldehyde Come From?

When you drink alcohol, your body recognizes it as a toxin and begins to break down the ethanol (pure alcohol) your beer or glass of liquor contains. If you’ve only had a couple of drinks, your body might be able to break that alcohol down into something simpler that can be easily flushed out of the body.

A group of young men drinking a lot of alcohol.

If your body is overloaded with alcohol, it’s a very different matter. There are too many toxins for your body to cope with and acetaldehyde builds up to toxic levels, making your face red and damaging essential functions all over your body. Your body tries to continue breaking down this chemical into substances that are not harmful but it can’t keep up.

Essentially, you are poisoned by the buildup of acetaldehyde.

Your Body Fights to Protect You

That chemical process of breaking apart alcohol molecules is called metabolism. This term is most commonly used to refer to the chemical processes of digesting food to get energy out of it but it also applies to the action of breaking down toxic drugs like cocaine, heroin or alcohol. Your body tries its hardest to get rid of all these toxins but if you drink too rapidly or use too many drugs, it can’t keep up.

As drugs or alcohol are broken down, new chemicals are created. These new substances are referred to as metabolites—the results of metabolism.

Acetaldehyde is, therefore, a very toxic metabolite of alcohol. To complicate matters, some people are genetically less able to process acetaldehyde, meaning that they are extra-susceptible to the following symptoms of acetaldehyde overload:

A girl who has been drinking has a red face and nausea.
  • Red face
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting

Acetaldehyde and High Blood Pressure

It’s long been known that drinkers are more prone to high blood pressure and all the dangers associated with that condition. It’s only been in the last several years that researchers have begun to understand this association.

To study this problem, researchers gathered a group of Korean men, some of whom got red faces after drinking and some who didn’t. They chose this ethnic group because East Asian populations are more likely to be deficient in the ability to process acetaldehyde simply because of their genetic makeup.

The research found that among the men whose faces turned red, there was twice the risk of hypertension, meaning a greater risk of heart attack, stroke and similar problems. That’s how toxic acetaldehyde is.

Acetaldehyde and Cancer

It’s common knowledge among scientists that alcohol consumption is associated with several types of cancer. The general public is often not aware of this link.

The types of cancer associated with alcohol consumption are:

  • Breast cancer
  • Cancer of the larynx (voice box)
  • Pharyngeal cancer (the upper throat)
  • Cancer of the esophagus
  • Liver cancer
  • Bowel cancer
  • Mouth cancer

A new study has shed light on the reason for this connection to cancer. It goes right back to acetaldehyde.

When there’s too much acetaldehyde in your body, this chemical attacks the DNA in certain cells. The DNA is actually broken in places, shattering those cells’ ability to reproduce into healthy new cells. When cells are damaged in this way, cancer has a better chance of taking root and growing. Specifically, head, neck and esophageal cancers are more likely to develop from the increased presence of acetaldehyde. Esophageal cancer is one of the deadliest cancers in the world, with very low survival rates.

And Finally, Acetaldehyde and an Alcoholism Treatment Drug

(Disulfiram/Photo courtesy of National Institutes of Health website)

As though this wasn’t bad enough, there’s one more distressing part to this story that involves the drug disulfiram, commonly brand named Antabuse. In 1951, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of disulfiram for those suffering from alcoholism or addiction to alcohol. When a person taking disulfiram then takes a drink of alcohol, he or she becomes sick with nausea, sweating, vomiting, chest pain, palpitations, confusion, weakness and more. An individual desperate to quit drinking may take disulfiram to preventing himself from slipping, especially if he has tried other methods and failed.

The way disulfiram works is to interfere with the body’s ability to break down acetaldehyde. It’s the buildup of acetaldehyde that causes these symptoms.

However, with this recent research on DNA damage resulting from acetaldehyde, it looks like disulfiram could be doing a lot more damage than just making the drinker uncomfortable.

Narconon Offers a Healthier Way Out of Addiction

A bright man enjoys a drug-free life.

For a person who has tried a method of treatment that involves the use of substitute medications, Narconon is a breath of fresh air. While some people, at the discretion of our medical directors, may need medical support as they withdraw from the drugs they were using, Narconon offers a path out of addiction and into a drug-free life. The result of the Narconon program is a person who knows how to enjoy life without reliance on any substitute medications like disulfiram, buprenorphine, Suboxone or methadone.

This is an alternative many people are searching for, especially when they’ve been through other rehab programs that didn’t work for them. Call Narconon today to learn how this unique program achieves a healthier, drug-free result: 1-877-737-5250.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.