Does alcohol cause cancer?

  • Yes, alcohol can cause 7 different types of cancer
  • It’s alcohol itself that causes damage - what type of alcohol you drink doesn’t matter
  • Whatever your drinking habits, cutting down will reduce your risk
     

 

Does a small amount of alcohol increase the risk of cancer?

Yes, cancer risk starts to increase at small amounts, so the more you can cut down the more you can reduce your risk. Sticking within the government guidelines is a good place to start.

This doesn’t mean everyone who drinks alcohol will develop cancer. But when we look at the whole population, people who drink alcohol are more likely to develop cancer than people who don’t.

Drinking alcohol causes 11,900 cases of cancer a year in the UK. Cutting back has lots of benefits other than reducing your cancer risk- including reducing the risk of accidents, high blood pressure and liver disease.

Is binge drinking worse for me?

Not when it comes to cancer risk. There isn’t currently good evidence that one specific drinking pattern is worse than another.

Research shows drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer whether you drink it all in one go or spread it throughout the week.

Scroll down to find out more about the science behind how alcohol can cause damage.

Are there any health benefits of drinking alcohol?

The new government guidelines are clear that we should not drink for health reasons. Some studies have suggested drinking a little bit of alcohol may be good for our hearts, due to a group of compounds called polyphenols. But the evidence is mixed, and you can find these compounds in lots of other things, such as berries. 

For more information on keeping your heart healthy visit the British Heart Foundation’s website.

What types of cancer can be caused by alcohol?

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of mouth cancer, pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer, oesophageal (food pipe) cancer, laryngeal (voice box) cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer and liver cancer.

Some of these might be quite surprising but alcohol gets in to our blood stream and can cause damage all around the body.

Is it worse if I drink and smoke?

Drinking and smoking are worse than either one alone, because together tobacco and alcohol cause more damage to cells in the body.

For example, alcohol makes it easier for the mouth and throat to absorb the cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco.

Find out more about tobacco and cancer here.

Do hangover ‘cures’ make a difference?

There’s plenty of tricks that people claim ‘cure’ hangovers. But whether they seem to work for you or not- they do not cancel out the long-term damage done by alcohol.

There are three main ways alcohol can cause damage;

  • Acetaldehyde - when we drink alcohol, it is turned in to a chemical called acetaldehyde in our body. This happens mainly in the liver, but other cells and some bacteria in our mouths and gut can do this too. Acetaldehyde can cause cancer by damaging DNA and stopping our cells from repairing this damage.
  • Hormone changes – alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones such as oestrogen and insulin. Hormones act as messengers in the body, giving our cells instructions - including when to grow and divide.
  • Increased absorption – alcohol can affect the cells between the mouth and throat, which may make it easier for other carcinogens to be absorbed.

Drinking lots of alcohol can damage the cells of the liver, causing a disease called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis can make you more likely to develop liver cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and 8% of cases each year are caused by drinking alcohol. The risk increases even at low levels of drinking.

Bagnardi, V. et al. Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose-response  meta-analysis. Br. J. Cancer 112, 580–593 (2015).

Brown, K. F. et al. The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. Br. J. Cancer 118, 1130–1141 (2018).

Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990-2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet (London, England) 392, 1015–1035 (2018).

Corrao, G., Bagnardi, V., Zambon, A. & La Vecchia, C. A meta-analysis of alcohol consumption and the risk of 15 diseases. Prev. Med. (Baltim). 38, 613–619 (2004).

World Cancer Research Fund. Alcoholic drinks and the risk of cancer. (2018).

IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans. Alcohol Consumption and Ethyl Carbamate. (2010).
 

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Get to know your units

Single measure of spirit = 1 unit

Pint of larger = 2 units

Large glass of wine = just under 3.5 units