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Alcohol and cancer

  • Wine bottle and glassesThere is no doubt that alcohol can cause seven types of cancer
  • The less alcohol you drink, the lower the risk of cancer
  • Overall, the risk of developing cancer is smaller if you stay within the government guidelines, about one standard drink a day for women or two for men
  • Drinking and smoking together are even worse for you.

Not everyone who drinks will develop cancer. But on the whole, scientists have found that some cancers are more common in people who drink more alcohol than others. Read more about the evidence that alcohol causes cancer.

Every year, alcohol causes 4% of cancers in the UK, around 12,500 cases.

Which cancers are affected?

Drinking alcohol regularly can increase the risk of:

 

The risk isn't just increased for heavy drinkers

Alcohol can increase the risk of cancer at levels far too low to make an average person drunk. It's not just people who drink very heavily who have higher risks.

Regularly drinking a pint of premium lager or a large glass of wine a day or less can increase the risk of mouth, throat, oesophageal (gullet or foodpipe), breast and bowel cancers. (They both include about 3 units of alcohol.)

Each unit of alcohol has a weaker effect on the risk of breast cancer than on cancers of the head and neck, but because breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and because so many women drink small amounts of alcohol regularly, a large number of women are affected - around 3,100 cases of breast cancer each year in the UK are linked to alcohol.

The more alcohol you drink, the higher the risk of developing cancer and other diseases. Heavy drinking can cause cirrhosis of the liver, which can in turn cause liver cancer. Heavy drinking can also lead to stroke, high blood pressure, pancreatitis and injuries.

Overall, the risk of developing cancer is smaller if you stick within the guideline amounts, which are around:

  • one standard drink a day for women e.g. a glass (175ml) of wine or a pint of beer or cider
  • two standard drinks a day for men e.g. 2 glasses (175ml) of wine or 2 pints of beer or cider.

But remember that:

  • as the amount of alcohol increases, so does the risk
  • some drinks may contain more alcohol than you think.

Find out more about reducing the risk from alcohol.

 

Alcohol and heart disease

Drinking small amounts of alcohol has been shown to offer some protection for people at risk of heart disease, which normally applies to people over the age of 40. However, drinking more alcohol doesn't reduce the risk further - in fact it can increase the risk of stroke and high blood pressure as well as other conditions. Increasing the amount of alcohol you drink in order to improve your health is unlikely to work.

Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "Moderate drinking - between 1 and 2 units a day - has been shown to offer some protection against heart disease.

"However, this should not be seen by people as a green light to start drinking - as there are better ways to protect your heart. Eating a sensible diet, exercising regularly and stopping smoking are all much better ways to keep your heart healthy."

Which is worse: binge drinking or spreading my drinking across the week?

Research has looked mainly at the amount of alcohol people drink in total and the effect in cancer risk. Drinking a lot of alcohol increases the risk of cancer whether you drink it all in one go or a bit at a time.

Do all types of alcohol increase the risk of cancer? 

All types of alcohol increase the risk of cancer. It is the alcohol itself that leads to the damage, regardless of whether it is in wine, beer or spirits.

Does drinking matter if you smoke?

People who smoke and drink multiply the risk for certain cancers, because tobacco and alcohol work together to damage the cells of the body. For example, research suggests that alcohol makes it easier for the mouth and throat to absorb the cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco, making the risk of these cancers much bigger compared to either drinking or smoking alone.

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Updated: 31 January 2014