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.
What’s my cancer risk from drinking alcohol?
If you drink alcohol, you are more likely to get cancer than if you don’t. But drinking alcohol doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely get cancer. Your exact risk will depend on lots of factors, including things you can’t change such as your age and genetics.
Cutting down on alcohol can help reduce the risk of cancer. Read our tips for drinking less.
Even a small amount of alcohol can increase your risk, so the more you can cut down the more you can reduce your risk.
Drinking less alcohol has lots of other benefits too. You can reduce your risk of accidents, high blood pressure and liver disease by cutting back.
How does alcohol cause cancer?
There are three main ways alcohol can cause cancer:
- Damage to cells. When we drink alcohol, our bodies turn it into a chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde can cause damage to our cells and can also stop the cells from repairing this damage.
- Changes to hormones. Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones such as oestrogen and insulin. Hormones are chemical messengers and higher levels can make cells divide more often, which raises the chance that cancer cells will develop.
- Changes to cells in the mouth and throat. Alcohol can make cells in the mouth and throat more likely to absorb harmful chemicals. This makes it easier for cancer-causing substances (like those found in cigarette smoke) to get into the cell and cause damage.
Remember, it’s the alcohol itself that causes damage. It doesn’t matter whether you drink beer, wine or spirits. All types of alcoholic drink can cause cancer.
There’s plenty of tricks that people claim ‘cure’ hangovers and reverse damage from alcohol. But even if they work for your hangover, they don’t cancel out the damage from drinking alcohol.
What types of cancer does alcohol cause?
Drinking alcohol increases the risk of 7 different types of cancer. This includes:
- Breast and bowel cancer (two of the most common types).
- Mouth cancer.
- Some types of throat cancer: oesophagus (food pipe), larynx (voice box), and pharynx (upper throat).
- Liver cancer.
Alcohol and breast cancer
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and drinking alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors for breast cancer. Around 4,400 breast cancer cases each year are caused by drinking alcohol. The risk increases even at low levels of drinking.
Is binge drinking worse for me?
Binge drinking causes problems, but it’s no worse for cancer risk than spreading drinks out across the week. No drinking pattern is worse than another. It’s how much alcohol you drink that matters.
Drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer whether you drink it all in one go or spread it throughout the week.
Are there any health benefits from drinking alcohol?
You may have heard that drinking alcohol can be good for the heart. But the NHS alcohol guidelines say that the evidence is not clear and that there is no completely safe level of drinking. You should not drink alcohol for health benefits. The risk of cancer increases even drinking small amounts of alcohol.
For more information about alcohol and heart health visit the British Heart Foundation’s website.
Is it worse if I drink and smoke?
Drinking alcohol is worse for you if you smoke. This is because tobacco and alcohol work together to cause much more damage to cells. This increases the risk of cancer.
For example, people who both smoke and drink alcohol are at a higher risk of mouth and upper throat cancer. This can happen because:
- Alcohol may make it easier for harmful chemicals from tobacco smoke to pass through the mouth and throat into the bloodstream.
- Alcohol may change how the toxic chemicals from tobacco smoke are broken down in the body, making them even more harmful.
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).
Griswold, M.G, et al. 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).
IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans. Alcohol Consumption and Ethyl Carbamate. (2010).
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