What Does It Mean If Everything Makes You Blush?

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
I hate being put on the spot in any group setting, because I know it's only a matter of seconds before the skin on my face will turn into a pinkish-red ombré — and not in a chic way. I blush pretty much whenever I have to interact with humans, and even times when I'm not at all embarrassed. If someone asks me about my relationship, compliments my shoes, or tells me that there's a period stain on my dress, I'm going to turn red. And the worst part is that once I feel my face get hot and prickly, it only makes me redder and more uncomfortable, because it feels like everyone can tell that I'm panicking internally.
Why does this happen? Well, nobody really knows, according to Marie Leger, MD, a dermatologist at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. "The fun thing about blushing is that most of us do it, but it's still kind of a mystery, like sleep," Dr. Leger says. "We know a little bit about how it works, but lots of people — dermatologists, behavioral psychologists, even Charles Darwin — have tried to figure out what blushing is about and what kind of function it serves."
Even though nobody knows why people blush, we do know what's happening in the body that leads to your face getting red. Blushing is a temporary dilation of the blood vessels, usually on the face, chest, upper arms, and/or neck, Dr. Leger says. "Medically, when we talk about blushing, it falls under the broader category of flushing, which is basically an autonomic nervous system mediated response," she says. What that means is, when you experience some kind of emotion, whether it's stress, embarrassment, or a compliment, your body's sympathetic nervous system sends signals to your blood vessels to dilate, she says. The result is a reddish glow on your face, chest, or neck, she says.
"Emotional blushing is one of the most common reasons why people experience this kind of sudden reddening," Dr. Leger says. But blushing doesn't necessarily mean you're embarrassed. "There are a whole bunch of things that the nervous system can do to make those blood vessels dilate that don't have to do with embarrassment," she says. For example, menopause, brisk exercise, intense heat, or a fever can send the same kind of signals to your blood vessels to dilate, she says. Or in some very rare cases, blushing can be a side effect of more serious health issues that impact your nervous system, such as a spinal cord injury, MS, or even brain tumors.
Sometimes blushing happens as a response to other external stimuli that aren't related to your nervous system, Dr. Leger says. Drinking alcohol, eating foods that contain nitrates, or taking certain medications can also cause a hot flush, she says. In most cases, blushing is totally innocuous, but if you experience other kinds of symptoms along with it, like diarrhea, headache, or lightheadedness, then it's definitely a good idea to see your doctor so they can rule out other health conditions, she says.
Blushing can be treated depending on the underlying cause. For some people, taking beta-blockers or antihistamines can help reduce the flushing, Dr. Leger says. There's also evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy can work, too, she says. In more extreme or radical cases, there is a surgical procedure, called a sympathectomy, in which surgeons cut or clamp your sympathetic nerve chain, to stop your body from sending signals through the sympathetic nervous system, Dr. Leger says. "Those can have a lot of unintended side effects," she says.
Even though it can feel like you're going to slowly implode from awkwardness when everyone's staring at your crimson face, emotional blushing is really not dangerous or bad for you, Dr. Leger says. In fact, a 2011 study found that people who are easily embarrassed are seen as more trustworthy. If you are an emotional blusher, there's not a whole lot you can do to stop it besides understanding your triggers and knowing when to expect them. And actually, some experts believe that the fear of blushing can make you blush more (especially if you have social anxiety), so perhaps remembering that blushing is NBD will help you calm down.
As for me and my incessant blushing, I've decided that so what if people know I'm embarrassed? Just because some people love being the queen of the room doesn't mean I have to — and that's okay.

More from Body


R29 Original Series