Alcohol and oral cancer

Oral cancer is the general term for cancer which develops in the mouth and neck and is one seven types of cancer linked with alcohol:

Statistics from Cancer Research UK show that mouth cancer rates are seeing a rapid increase, since the 1990s rates have more than doubled in the UK. In 2014 there were 11,449 new cases of oral cancer in the UK; that’s around 31 people every day being diagnosed with this cancer. Mouth cancer is now the fourth most common cancer in men, and 12th most common in women1

However, drinkers are more at risk (especially if they smoke) so it’s important to understand how to recognise oral cancer and what you can do to reduce the risk.

Types of oral cancer 

There are four main types of oral cancer:

  • Mouth cancer
  • Pharyngeal cancer (upper throat)
  • Oesophageal cancer (food pipe)
  • Laryngeal cancer (voice box)

Mouth cancer is most common, but tumours can develop anywhere in the mouth and throat, including tonsils and saliva glands.

Find out about the links between alcohol and six other types of cancer

Oral cancer and alcohol 

If you drink alcohol regularly, your mouth and throat are often in close contact with alcohol, which is a risk factor for all types of oral cancer.

A 2010 study found that people who had four or more drinks a day had about five times the risk of mouth and pharynx cancers compared to people who never drank or drank only occasionally. However, it also indicated an increased risk for moderate alcohol drinking, which counts as one drink a day.2 

Another important study found that when you stop drinking, you can reduce your alcohol-related risk of getting oral cancer by 2% for each year you remain tee-total.Limiting the risk of oral cancer is one reason to drink within the recommended UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines of 14 units per week for both men and women. 

 Oral cancer symptoms 

Catching oral cancer early is important because early diagnosis by a dentist or doctor makes it much more likely that you’ll make a full recovery. A delay in seeking professional advice is a main factor contributing to the delayed diagnosis of oral cancer and hence potentially worse outcome.4 The main symptoms of oral cancer are:

  • red or white lesions inside the mouth perhaps on the side or under the tongue (or in the  floor of the mouth)
  • a swelling or a single ulcer that has been present for more than two weeks.

Early symptoms

If you have an ulcer that isn’t painful it’s important that you still get it checked by a dentist or doctor. Painful oral cancer symptoms don’t develop until the cancer is at a more advanced stage. 

Swelling or an ulcer may be the first sign of oral cancer. The earlier it is diagnosed the more likely you’ll make a full recovery.5

Later symptoms

Later signs of oral cancer can include a numb feeling in the mouth, pain or an ulcer beginning to weep blood. If you experience one or more of those symptoms it’s vital to see a dentist or doctor as soon as you can. 

The mouth is a part of the body which normally heals quickly so it’s very important to get any long-term problems checked by your dentist or doctor. 

Your dentist is often best equipped to spot oral cancer warning signs. Not missing your dental check-ups is important, even if you no longer have any of your own teeth. They screen your mouth and can help diagnose mouth or throat cancer before you notice that something is wrong.

Cut down on alcohol to reduce your cancer risks

Alcohol and Smoking

Combining smoking with alcohol increases the risk of getting oral cancer even further.6 Tobacco is highly carcinogenic, and alcohol may make the mouth more absorbent, which allows these carcinogens to enter the body. 

Professor Graham Ogden, a mouth cancer specialist, highlights the danger of drinking and smoking by pointing out that: “A pack of cigarettes a day increases your risk of developing oral cancer but smoking a pack a day with drinking consistently above the recommended limits for alcohol greatly increases your risk  for contracting oral cancer.”

Other causes of oral cancer 

Other than alcohol and smoking there are other risk factors for oral cancer. 

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

A risk factor which many people aren’t aware of is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is a virus which affects the skin, cervix, anus, mouth and throat and is passed through sexual contact. In most cases the virus doesn’t do any harm because your body fights it off but if it remains it can cause health problems. 

There are over 100 types of HPV, many are harmless but other types can cause cancer. A recent study found that people infected with HPV were 32 times more likely to develop oral or throat cancers.7 

To reduce the risk of HPV infection it’s important that you use a condom during sex, including oral and anal sex. 

Lifestyle

An unhealthy lifestyle and poor diet can put you at greater risk of developing mouth or throat cancer.

Sign up to the Little Less Challenge for tips to cut nack

Preventing oral cancer

There are several things you can do to prevent oral cancer, the best way to reduce risk is to:

Practising safe sex and wearing a condom can help prevent HPV and reduce the risk of developing oral cancer. Wearing a condom can’t guarantee you’ll be fully protected against HPV but it can greatly reduce the risk.

There’s also a vaccination offered to all girls aged between 12 and 13 (year eight in schools in England), which will protect them from HPV in the future.8 A school will inform parents when girls are due to be vaccinated. More information about the HPV vaccine is available on the NHS Choices website. 

If you’d like to understand more about alcohol units and get advice, tips and motivation to drink within recommended levels download the Drinkaware Track and Calculate Units mobile app.

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Last reviewed: 17 November 2017

Next review due: 17 November 2020