What is Acetaldehyde?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Acetaldehyde is a colorless flammable chemical compound which appears in the form of a liquid with a distinctive fruity odor. This chemical can be produced synthetically for various purposes, and it occurs naturally in ripe fruit, especially grapes, along with coffee and bread. This compound is also produced in the body as a byproduct of alcohol metabolism. When levels of this compound rise to a high level, they cause a condition known slangily as a “hangover.”

Acetaldehyde is used in some perfumes.
Acetaldehyde is used in some perfumes.

The chemical formulate for acetaldehyde is CH3CHO. This compound is also known as ethanal. It is used commercially in the production of some pharmaceutical products and perfumes, and it is also utilized as a catalyst for various chemical reactions. Because acetaldehyde is an irritant and a suspected carcinogen, it must be handled with care in facilities which produce it to avoid exposing people to unnecessary risk.

People who have consumed too much alcohol develop hangovers because their livers cannot process acetaldehyde fast enough.
People who have consumed too much alcohol develop hangovers because their livers cannot process acetaldehyde fast enough.

When people drink alcohol, it is broken down in the liver to acetaldehyde by alcohol dehydrogenase. The acetaldehyde in turn is broken down into acetic acid by acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and another chemical, glutathione. Some people have enzyme deficiencies which allow the compound to build up in the body during drinking, causing a distinctive flush of the face. People who have consumed too much alcohol develop hangovers because their livers cannot process the acetaldehyde fast enough.

A buildup of acetaldehyde can cause the face to become flushed.
A buildup of acetaldehyde can cause the face to become flushed.

Hangovers resolve when the enzyme levels in the liver rise again and the liver can finish metabolizing the acetaldehyde. Alcohol metabolism can put severe stress on the liver, especially when people routinely drink large amounts of alcohol, and it can lead to a number of health problems caused by a decline in liver function. The drug Antabuse which is designed to fight alcoholism by creating negative consequences when people drink blocks the activity of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, leaving people with a feeling of profound discomfort after consuming even a small amount of alcohol.

Acetaldehyde occurs naturally in coffee.
Acetaldehyde occurs naturally in coffee.

In wine and spirits production, acetaldehyde levels are a source of much interest. This chemical compound can be found in wines and spirits derived from fruits, at varying levels, and it contributes to the fruity smell of many wines. If the level of this compound is too high, however, it can be considered a defect, and may render a finished product less valuable or less flavorful. Universities which research wine and spirits have conducted a great deal of interest on this compound and its role in the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages.

The drug Antabuse, which is used to help limit alcohol intake, blocks the activity of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase.
The drug Antabuse, which is used to help limit alcohol intake, blocks the activity of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase.
When people drink alcohol, it is broken down in the liver to acetaldehyde.
When people drink alcohol, it is broken down in the liver to acetaldehyde.
Over time, excessive drinking can place undue stress on the liver.
Over time, excessive drinking can place undue stress on the liver.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

sunnySkys

@JaneAir - This is news to me too. I always thought a hangover was caused by dehydration!

I actually know a few people who get really flushed when they drink! I have one friend that we always tease because the redness is just so pronounced! You can really see it in pictures too. I guess this means they probably have the enzyme deficiency discussed in the article.

JaneAir

If a hangover is caused by the livers inability to process acetaldehyde, it seems like most hangover cures won't work! I've heard of pills you take to cure a hangover, drink mixes, eating certain foods-but none of those things are going to help your liver work better!

Very interesting. It seems like the only thing that can really cure a hangover is time. Or, you know, just don't overindulge yourself in the first place!

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