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Many East Asians get a red
face when they drink alcohol. This is the result of a genetic condition that
also increases drinkers' risk of esophageal cancer.
Chung Li wants to know why
his face turns red when he drinks alcohol. This effect called facial flushing is a common
reaction to alcohol among East Asians. It affects an estimated thirty-six
percent of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.
For many, even a small amount of alcohol can cause unpleasant effects. Most
commonly, their face, neck and sometimes their whole body turns red. People
might also feel lightheaded and sick to their stomach. They might experience a
burning sensation, increased heart rate, shortness of breath and headaches.
The cause is a genetic difference that they are born with called an "ALDH2
deficiency." It prevents their bodies
from processing alcohol the way other people do.
But the effects might be more serious than just a red face. Researchers warn of
a link between this condition and an increased risk of cancer of the esophagus
from drinking alcohol. A new report appeared in March in the journal ( PLoS
Medicine), published by the Public Library of Science.
The more alcohol that people with this deficiency drink, the greater their
risk. In Japan and South Korea, for example, many people have the deficiency
but still drink heavily. Researchers found that these drinkers develop a form
of esophageal cancer six to ten times more often than those without the
Esophageal cancer is one of the deadliest cancers. It can be treated when found
early, but once it grows the chances of survival drop sharply.
The researchers estimate that at least five hundred forty million people have
the deficiency, about eight percent of the world.
Philip Brooks is a researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and
Alcoholism in the United States. He says it is important to educate people
about the link between the alcohol flushing effect and esophageal cancer.
He says doctors should ask East Asian patients about their experiences with
facial flushing after drinking alcohol. Those with a history of it should be
advised to limit their alcohol use. They should also be warned that cigarette
smoking works with the alcohol in a way that further increases the risk of