Facial Flushing while Drinking Indicates Increased Risk for Throat Cancer

Posted on March 2nd, 2010
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Researchers report that flushing, or the reddening of the face while drinking alcohol, may be an indicator of an increased risk of throat cancer. Flushing is mostly caused by a genetic deficiency in an enzyme called ALDH2, which is present in more than a third of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people. Flushing can be triggered by even a small amount of alcohol.

This deficiency affects the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, which makes the body accumulate a toxin called acetaldehyde. Some people can become tolerant to the toxin and continue to drink large amounts of alcohol, whereas others have two copies of the responsible gene and can’t tolerate the reaction to alcohol, which protects them from the increased risk of cancer.

Dr. Philip J. Brooks, author of the study and an investigator with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said that they hope to raise awareness of the increased risk of cancer among doctors and their patients, adding that ALDH2-deficiency is a serious risk.

People with this enzyme deficiency have an increased risk of developing squamous cell esophageal cancer, which is also caused by smoking. Surgery can be performed, but survival rates are low. The more a person drinks, the higher the risk becomes—a person who drinks two beers a day has six to ten times the risk of developing the cancer as someone who isn’t ALDH2-deficient.

Asian adults can significantly reduce their risk of developing cancer by reducing their alcohol consumption. The study found that if ALDH2-deficient Japanese men had fewer than 16 alcoholic drinks a week, 53 percent of cancers among that group could be prevented.

To test whether a patient is ALDH2-deficient, doctors can simply ask if the patient flushes after having one drink, and then whether they started flushing during the first year or two after beginning to drink alcohol. They can also perform a patch test, where ethanol is applied to the skin. If flushing occurs after 10 or 15 minutes, the person is likely ALDH2-deficient.

Source: New York Times, Nicholas Bakalar, Blushing Drinkers at Risk for Esophageal Cancer, March 21, 2010
 

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