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Drinking Habits

Why Does My Face Turn Red When I Drink Alcohol? (And How To Prevent Red Face When Drinking)

June 11, 2023
11 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 11, 2023
11 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 11, 2023
11 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 11, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 11, 2023
11 min read

If you’ve ever had the experience of looking in the mirror and noticing your face turning red after a few drinks, you’re not alone. You may be wondering, “Why does my face turn red when I drink?” First off, don't panic — you're not turning into a human tomato. There’s actually a lot going on internally that’s important to comprehend so we can effectively change our drinking habits.

In this article, we’ll explore the connection between getting a red face when drinking alcohol. Whether you regularly get flushing with alcohol or it’s just now happening for the first time, you’re not alone. We’ll learn how to treat red face from alcohol and how to prevent red face when drinking — and luckily, there are a few simple solutions! Let’s dive into the details of that effect affectionately (or frustratedly) known as the “alcohol flush."

Why Do We Blush?

A lady with face redness

Before we delve into the world of alcohol-induced facial redness, let's talk about blushing. When we blush, it's because our blood vessels are expanding — a process known as vasodilation. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including emotional responses like embarrassment, physical exertion, or in response to certain foods, medicines, or — you guessed it — alcohol.

Imagine the body as a city and the blood vessels as the network of roads. Naturally, we want traffic to flow smoothly, right? That's where vasodilation comes in — it's like adding extra lanes to the highway to keep the traffic (blood) moving freely in order to deliver nutrients more efficiently.

This whole process is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Certain chemicals, such as nitric oxide, have the power to relax the muscles in the walls of our blood vessels. This relaxation causes the vessels to widen and allows more blood to flow through.

This comes in handy in various situations. For instance, if you're running a marathon — or just chasing your escaped dog — your muscles need extra oxygen. Thanks to vasodilation, they get just that. Vasodilation also plays a role when we're sick or injured. It boosts the blood flow to the affected area, delivering an array of healing cells. That's why when we get a cut or a sprain, it becomes red and warm due to our blood vessels opening up the roads for the body's healing mechanisms. Flushing with alcohol, therefore, also comes from vasodilation.

Why Does My Face Turn Red When I Drink?

So, if you’ve ever wondered “Why do I turn red when I drink,” there is indeed a scientific explanation: vasodilation. Our bodies break down alcohol in a two-step process:

  1. First, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase — ADH — transforms the alcohol into a substance called acetaldehyde.
  2. Then, another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 — ALDH2 — turns the acetaldehyde into acetate, a harmless substance.

But here's the thing: not everyone's ALDH2 enzyme works at the same pace. In some of us, particularly those of us with East Asian ancestry, a genetic variant causes the ALDH2 enzyme to work less efficiently, leading to an accumulation of acetaldehyde in the bloodstream. Acetaldehyde is a vasodilator, meaning it causes blood vessels to expand and results in that familiar flushed face. This alcohol vasodilator property is what explains the alcohol red face.

Alcohol Metabolism

The Risks of Alcohol Flush

Now, you might be thinking, "So what if I look like a red panda after a glass of Merlot? It's worth it for the buzz." A word of caution: several studies have linked the ALDH2 deficiency to an increased risk of certain types of cancer.

Acetaldehyde is far more toxic than alcohol itself and is able to damage DNA and proteins, which can lead to mutations and the development of cancer, particularly in the esophagus and liver. Even moderate drinking can lead to a buildup, especially in those of us who lack sufficient quantities of the enzyme responsible for breaking it down.

Beyond its role as a carcinogen, acetaldehyde is also responsible for many of the negative side effects associated with hangovers. Nausea, vomiting, headache, rapid heartbeat — these unpleasant symptoms can all be traced back to the acetaldehyde coursing through our bloodstream.

Facial flushing can be a sign of alcohol intolerance, similar to lactose intolerance. This means your body has trouble processing alcohol, which can exacerbate the unpleasant symptoms associated with acetaldehyde buildup.

There's yet another thing to know about acetaldehyde: it can create so-called "acetaldehyde adducts" — bonded molecules that form when acetaldehyde reacts with other natural body chemicals. This process causes long-lasting damage to our body, even long after we’ve sobered up.

How To Prevent Red Face When Drinking

So is it all bad news? Not necessarily. One recent study suggests that folks who experience alcohol flush might actually have a lower risk of becoming alcohol-dependent. That's because the unpleasant symptoms can act as a natural deterrent, discouraging heavy drinking.

So, if you're looking to quit or cut back on alcohol, the reality of alcohol flushing might end up working as a helpful motivation. If your face turns red after a drink or two, that might be your body’s way of telling you to take it easy.

If you’re thinking of reducing your alcohol consumption as a way of avoiding that flush reaction, here are a few tips to get started:

  • Mindful drinking. Try to pay attention to how much you're drinking and pace yourself. Consider sipping on a glass of water between alcoholic drinks or setting a limit on how many drinks you’ll have at a time.
  • Low-alcohol options. Opt for drinks with a lower alcohol content. That could mean choosing light beer, a wine spritzer, or a mocktail.
  • Support. If you're finding it hard to cut back, don't hesitate to seek help. Talk to your doctor about your concerns so they can offer personalized guidance. Consider seeking professional help from a therapist, or peer-led help from a support group. There are also app options such as Reframe that offer support and guidance right at your fingertips.

Remember, it's okay to ask for help and it's okay to take things slow. Everyone’s journey is unique, and what matters is that you’re making an effort to be mindful and make healthier choices.

In the end, we might not be able to change our genes or how our bodies react to alcohol, but we can control our drinking habits. And with some handy tips in our toolbox, we now know how to prevent red face when drinking. The first step to saying goodbye to your red-cheeked reflection starts with saying hello to a healthier lifestyle!

Kickstart Your Well-Being Journey With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today! 

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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