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Alcohol and cancer

Alcohol is a carcinogen. This means it causes cancer.

The less you drink, the lower your risk of developing alcohol-related cancer.

Each year in Ireland:

  • 1,000 people are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers.
  • Alcohol causes at least 260 breast cancers.

Alcohol increases the risk of head, neck and oesophageal (gullet) cancers.

People who drink heavily are five times more likely to get these cancers than non-drinkers.

Types of cancer caused by alcohol

Alcohol causes 7 types of cancer

  • Breast
  • Liver
  • Bowel
  • Mouth
  • Upper throat
  • Larynx
  • Oesophagus

How alcohol increases your risk of cancer

Any type of alcoholic drink can increase your risk of cancer. What matters is the amount of pure alcohol you drink, not the type of drink.

Alcohol is converted in our bodies into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This can cause cancer by damaging our DNA and stopping cells from repairing the damage.

Alcohol can also increase the levels of some hormones, such as oestrogen. This increases the risk of breast cancer.

Alcohol acts as a solvent. This helps carcinogens transfer from cigarettes through the body.

How much alcohol increases your risk of cancer

People are more likely to get cancer if they drink a lot of alcohol. How much alcohol increases your risk depends on the type of cancer.

Drinking in your teens and 20s does not result in a diagnosis of cancer immediately. But it increases the risk 10 to 20 years later. It will depend on how much and how often you drink.

For breast cancer, even light regular drinking increases the risk.

Heavy drinking increases the risk for all the cancers caused by alcohol. The more you drink, the greater the risk.

Alcohol, smoking and cancer

If you smoke as well as drink alcohol, your risk of certain cancers is even higher. Cigarette smoke contains over 70 cancer-causing chemicals.

Alcohol makes it easier for these harmful chemicals to enter the cells lining in the:

  • mouth
  • throat
  • larynx (voicebox)
  • oesophagus

This greatly increases the risk of cancer developing in these areas.

You can avoid most head and neck cancers by not smoking and reducing your alcohol use.

Reduce the risk

Alcohol is one of the most preventable causes of cancer after smoking.

It is best to avoid smoking and drinking alcohol together.

Talk to your GP if you have any unusual or unexplained changes in your body.

Related topics

Sign up to a Quit plan to help you stop smoking

Tips for drinking less

page last reviewed: 08/11/2019
next review due: 08/11/2022