Doctors and researchers know that some people who consume alcohol have a tendency to develop facial flushing, a condition marked by skin redness and an unusual feeling of warmth or burning. These individuals typically have a lower level of tolerance for alcohol’s physical effects inside the body. In a study published in April 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of researchers from two South Korean institutions sought to determine if people who experience facial flushing after consuming alcohol have increased risks for high blood pressure, one of the known potential consequences of relatively high short- or long-term alcohol intake.
Flushing in the face (or other parts of the body such as the neck or torso) occurs as a result of increased localized blood flow. In some cases, this increase in blood flow stems from changes in the body’s involuntary or autonomic nervous system; in others, it stems from the specific actions of a chemical or substance inside the body. Some people affected by facial flushing have serious associated health problems, while others do not. Alcohol can trigger the onset of facial flushing in people who have an unusual tendency to build up large amounts of alcohol-related breakdown products in their bloodstreams after they drink. In many affected individuals, this buildup results from a genetic variation that makes it harder to eliminate alcohol’s byproducts and avoid the toxic effects of alcohol exposure. Individuals of Asian descent may have an unusually high tendency to experience this genetic variation. Other potential underlying causes of skin flushing in people who consume alcohol include lymph gland tumors, thyroid cancer and exposure to an industrial degreasing chemical called trichloroethylene.
Alcohol and High Blood Pressure
When blood flows through your arteries, it exerts force on the artery walls, both during each heartbeat and during the rest periods between heartbeats. Doctors refer to this force as your blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when the flow of blood exerts too much force on the artery walls during the heart’s active or resting phase, or during both the active and resting phase. Ethyl alcohol, the active ingredient in all commercially produced alcoholic beverages, is a toxic substance that, among other things, can alter the normal function of your artery walls. As a rule, your blood pressure will start to rise if you drink three or more servings of alcohol in a relatively short span of time. Alcoholics and other people who habitually consume large amounts of alcohol commonly develop related, long-term cases of hypertension.
Facial Flushing as a Predictor
In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from South Korea’s Chungnam National University and University of Ulsan used information gathered from 1,763 men to assess the connection between alcohol-related facial flushing and the onset of high blood pressure. Five hundred twenty-seven of these men were alcohol consumers affected by facial flushing; another 948 participants were drinkers unaffected by facial flushing. A third group of 288 participants did not drink alcohol.
The researchers compared the weekly drinking rates and high blood pressure risks of the men in all three groups. In order to make this comparison more meaningful, they took the time to statistically account for other major factors known to impact the risks for high blood pressure, including such things as physical activity level, age, cigarette intake and body fat levels. After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that the hypertension risks went up significantly in the participants affected by facial flushing when their weekly alcohol intake rose above four drinks. In contrast, among the participants not affected by facial flushing, the hypertension risks only rose significantly when weekly alcohol intake levels surpassed eight drinks. Overall, the alcohol consumers affected by facial flushing had greater chances of developing high blood pressure than their non-flushing, alcohol-using counterparts when they consumed five to eight drinks a week, as well as when they consumed more than eight drinks a week.
Significance and Considerations
Based on their findings, the authors of the study concluded that people who experience facial flushing after consuming alcohol apparently have a greater sensitivity to alcohol-related high blood pressure, as well as a heightened baseline risk for developing high blood pressure related to their alcohol intake. The authors believe that doctors should think about using measurements of facial flushing when evaluating their patients’ overall risks for experiencing alcohol-related harm.