Alcohol and oesophageal (food pipe) cancer
Oesophageal cancer (also known as food pipe or gullet cancer) is one of seven types of cancer caused by drinking alcohol.
Drinking alcohol causes cancer of the oesophagus – also sometimes known as the gullet or food pipe. The oesophagus is the pipe that connects your mouth to your stomach.
Not everyone who drinks alcohol will get food pipe cancer, but the risk starts to increase even at low levels of drinking. So, the less you drink, the more you reduce your risk.
Food pipe cancer is a cancer in your oesophagus. Symptoms can include:1
Some of these symptoms can be common for other less serious conditions, like acid reflux. But it’s important to make an appointment with your GP surgery if your symptoms persist, change, get worse, or don’t feel normal for you.
If you drink regularly, your food pipe will be in close contact with alcohol, which increases your risk of cancer developing. That’s because drinking alcohol can alter cells in your food pipe to absorb carcinogens (substances that cause cancer) more easily,2,3 and create a substance inside your body called acetaldehyde which can damage DNA.4
Not everyone who drinks alcohol will get cancer but the more you drink - even if you have one drink daily - the more you increase your risk.
13% of cases of oesophageal cancer in the UK are caused by drinking alcohol.5
Limiting the risk of oesophageal cancer is one reason to drink within (and preferably below, to reduce your risk further) the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines of 14 units per week for both men and women.
Combining smoking with drinking alcohol significantly increases the risk of getting oesophageal cancer. Tobacco is highly carcinogenic (meaning it’s a substance that causes cancer), and alcohol may make the food pipe more absorbent, which allows these carcinogens to enter the body.
Drinking alcohol increases the risk of oesophageal cancer by itself, and smoking increases this risk too - even if you don’t drink alcohol. But the harmful effect of smoking and drinking alcohol together is bigger than the sum of their individual effects.6
There are several things you can do to have a low risk of developing oesophageal cancer:7
Although your food pipe connects your mouth and your stomach, doctors don’t group oesophageal cancer with other types of mouth, head and neck cancer.
But mouth cancer, throat (pharyngeal) cancer and voice box (laryngeal) cancer can also be caused by drinking alcohol. Find out more about them here:
 Bagnardi, V., Rota, M., Botteri, E., Tramacere, I., Islami, F., Fedirko, V., Scotti, L., Jenab, M., Turati, F., Pasquali, E. and Pelucchi, C. (2015). Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose–response meta-analysis. British Journal of Cancer, 112(3), 580.
 Ferrari et al (2007), ‘Lifetime and baseline alcohol intake and risk of colon and rectal cancers in the European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition (EPIC)’, International Journal of Cancer. 121(9): 2065-2072.
 Cancer Research UK website. Oesophageal cancer risk. Available at: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/oesophageal-cancer/risk-factors (Accessed 8/12/2021)
 Prabhu A, Obi KO, Rubenstein JH. (2014) The synergistic effects of alcohol and tobacco consumption on the risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma: a meta-analysis. Am J Gastroenterol 2014;109(6):822-7.
Last Reviewed: 17th February 2022
Next Review due: 17th February 2025