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Alcohol, the 'Asian Flush' and the Risk of Cancer

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. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

A question from Taiwan: 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. The reaction is also known as "Asian flush" or "Asian glow."

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 deficiency.

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 esophageal cancer.

And that's the VOA Special English Health Report, written by June Simms. Archives are at I'm Steve Ember.