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Updated on September 18, 2023
7 min read

Does Alcohol Cause Cancer and What Are the Risks?

Alyssa Hill
Elena Borrelli M.S.PAC
Written by 
16 Sources Cited
Alyssa Hill
Written by 
16 Sources Cited

Cancer Risk from Heavy Alcohol Use

Occasional drinking can seem harmless, but alcohol or ethanol can potentially cause cancer. It’s a known carcinogen classified as a group I carcinogen.

Studies show that drinking three or more alcoholic beverages daily increases the risk of stomach and pancreatic cancers. Moderate or heavy alcohol consumption can also increase the risk of other cancers like:11

  • Prostate cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Skin cancer

Throughout this article, we’ll discuss how alcohol causes cancer and the different types you’ll be more prone to from drinking.


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How Does Alcohol Cause Cancer?

Alcohol consumption resulted in an estimated 3.2% to 3.7% of all US cancer deaths in 2013.12 The link between cancer and alcohol is continuously being studied.

The following are some ways that alcohol can potentially increase the risk of cancer:

Acetaldehyde Production

When you consume alcohol, your liver breaks down the ethanol into acetaldehyde. This is a toxic compound that can lead to cancer. 

Acetaldehyde can cause damage to your body’s proteins and DNA (genetic makeup). It’s also the reason why you feel the following after drinking:15

  • Hangover
  • Upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Increased heart rate

Increased Estrogen Production

Alcohol increases estrogen (a sex hormone) production in the body. Too much estrogen has been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer in women, and rarely men. In the U.S., about 1% of breast cancers occur in men.16

Fewer Nutrients

Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco regularly increases a person’s risk of developing certain cancers, such as throat, mouth, and esophageal cancer.

Alcohol damages the body’s ability to break down and absorb essential nutrients. Many vitamins and minerals help prevent diseases such as cancer. These nutrients include Vitamin A, B, C, D, E, folate, and carotenoids.

Types of Cancers Linked to Alcohol

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of getting several types of cancers. The most common cancers that develop due to alcohol use include, but are not limited to:

Breast Cancer

Women who drink lightly have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. However, heavy drinkers are more than 1 ½ times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not drink alcohol.

Liver Cancer

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of cirrhosis or liver cell damage. When untreated, cirrhosis can lead to liver cancer. This is why heavy drinkers are twice as likely to develop liver cancer.

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer, also called esophageal carcinoma, is a rare cancer affecting the tube that connects your throat and stomach (the esophagus). People who drink moderately throughout life have a slightly higher risk of developing esophageal cancer than non-drinkers.

Heavy drinkers are five times more likely to develop esophagus cancer compared to non-drinkers.1 This is especially true for people with an alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Head and Neck Cancer

Moderate to heavy alcohol use is connected to many types of head and neck cancer. This includes cancers of the:

  • Throat
  • Voice box (larynx)
  • Other areas of the oral cavity (besides the lips)

Moderate alcohol users are slightly more likely to develop these cancers than non-drinkers. Heavy alcohol users, on the other hand, are over 2 ½ times more likely to develop head and neck cancers than non-drinkers.

Colorectal Cancer

Drinking heavily over many years increases the risk of colorectal (colon and rectal) cancer. People who never drink or drink lightly have a lower risk of developing colon or rectal cancer compared to long-term, heavy alcohol users.

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Does Quitting Alcohol Lower Cancer Risk?

Generally, studies have discovered that stopping alcohol consumption is not linked to an immediate reduction in cancer risk. Although the cancer risk does eventually reduce, it may take years for the cancer risk to match the same level as non-drinkers.

Ex-drinkers risk developing oral or pharyngeal cancers more than non-drinkers, even after 16 years of sobriety. However, the risk is significantly lower than when they were still drinking.9

Most studies on reducing cancer risk after sobriety focus on head, neck, and esophageal cancers. One of these studies predicted that it would take more than 35 years to reduce the risk of laryngeal and pharyngeal cancers if you stopped drinking.10

Is Alcohol Worse Than Smoking?

Whether alcohol is worse than smoking depends on how much you smoke or drink. Both increase cancer risks, and using both substances can worsen their chances.13

Studies have shown that drinking a bottle of wine a week carries the same lifetime risk of cancer as smoking ten cigarettes a week in women and five in men. The study also compared smoking to heavier levels of alcohol consumption.14

Drinking three bottles of wine per week could increase cancer risk by 3.6 percent in women and 1.9 in men. This is the equivalent of smoking eight cigarettes per week for men and 23 for women.14


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How Much Alcohol Does it Take To Increase Cancer Risk?

Alcohol increases the risk of cancer regardless of whether it’s light, moderate, or heavy drinking. The risk of developing cancer is low for light drinkers, but it’s still present.

The risk of developing cancer, depending on the type of alcohol use, is as follows:


Those who rarely drink or do not drink alcohol altogether have the lowest risk of developing alcohol-related cancers.

Moderate Alcohol Consumers

Alcohol consumption is defined as one alcoholic drink a day for women and two alcoholic beverages a day for men. While this is the safest way to drink alcohol, doing so long-term can still increase your risk of developing cancer.

Binge Drinkers

Binge drinking is when you consume four or more drinks (women) and five or more drinks (men) within two hours. Binge drinking regularly increases your risk of developing alcohol-related cancers and can lead to alcohol use disorder (AUD) over time. 

Heavy Drinkers

Heavy drinking is when someone consumes eight or more drinks a week (women) and 15 or more drinks a week (men). Drinking alcohol heavily and for an extended time dramatically increases a person’s risk of developing certain cancers.

Heavy alcohol consumption and people with long-term alcohol use disorder (AUD) are most at risk. Experts recommend not drinking altogether or drinking in moderation to help prevent the development of alcohol-related cancers over time.

Other Health Effects of Drinking Alcohol

Alcohol consumption can lead to short and long-term side effects such as:

These health effects vary from person to person. For some individuals, alcohol can be addictive. Their drinking can become more excessive over time, resulting in severe health and social problems.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

People who suddenly stop drinking alcohol can experience physical withdrawal symptoms.

These include:

  • Tremors
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Delirium tremens (DT)

For some people, withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening. This doesn’t mean that heavy drinkers should keep drinking to avoid withdrawal. Instead, they should discuss their habits with their healthcare team regarding the safest way to stop drinking.

How to Prevent Alcohol-Related Health Problems

There are several ways to reduce or prevent alcohol-related health problems. Aside from quitting, here are a few things you can do:

  • Limit the amount you drink
  • Drink slower and keep track of your drinks
  • Alternate your drinks with water
  • Avoid drinking heavy liquors or spirits

You can also go into a rehab facility for AUD treatment. For cancer prevention, you should consider drinking moderately or quitting alcohol entirely.

Is It Safe To Drink Alcohol While Undergoing Chemotherapy?

Alcohol intake can worsen the side effects of chemotherapy and the drugs used during cancer treatment. Side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Mouth sores

You should talk to your doctor about the use of alcohol. Relaying any questions about a specific patient’s cancer treatment to their healthcare team is important. Doctors and nurses providing treatment can give specific advice regarding alcohol use.


Alcohol is a known carcinogen, which makes all alcoholic drinks carry an increased cancer risk. Moderate or heavy drinking can increase the risk of certain types of cancer, like pancreatic, liver, or prostate cancer.

Various factors can cause alcohol to increase your risk of cancer. These factors include acetaldehyde production, estrogen production, and nutrient deficiencies.

Although quitting alcohol can reduce the cancer risk, it must be done properly. Speak to an addiction specialist if you need help tapering down alcohol use to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Updated on September 18, 2023
16 sources cited
Updated on September 18, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. “Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet.” National Cancer Institute, 2021.
  2. Bagnardi et al. ”Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose-response meta-analysis.” British Journal of Cancer, 2015.
  3. LoConte et al. ”Alcohol and cancer: A statement of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.” Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2018.
  4. Seitz, H.K., and Becker, P. “Alcohol Metabolism and Cancer Risk.” Alcohol Research & Health, 2007.
  5. Song et al. “Effects of Interactions between Common Genetic Variants and Alcohol Consumption on Colorectal Cancer Risk.” Oncotarget, 2018.
  6. Bagnardi et al. ”A meta-analysis of alcohol drinking and cancer risk.” British Journal of Cancer, 2001.
  7. Allen et al. “Moderate Alcohol Intake and Cancer Incidence in Women.” JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2009.
  8. Pöschl, G., and Seitz, H.K. “ALCOHOL AND CANCER”, Alcohol and Alcoholism, 2004.
  9. Rehm et al. “Alcohol drinking cessation and its effect on esophageal and head and neck cancers: a pooled analysis.” International Journal of Cancer, 2007.
  10. Ahmad Kiadaliri et al. “Alcohol drinking cessation and the risk of laryngeal and pharyngeal cancers: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” PloS One, 2013.
  11. Alcohol and Cancer.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023.
  12. Nelson et al.”Alcohol-attributable cancer deaths and years of potential life lost in the United States.” American Journal of Public Health. 2013.
  13. Maasland et al. “Alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and the risk of subtypes of head-neck cancer” BMC Cancer, 2014.
  14. Hydes et al. “A comparison of gender-linked population cancer risks between alcohol and tobacco: how many cigarettes are there in a bottle of wine?” BMC Public Health 2019.
  15. Vijayraghavan et al. “Acetaldehyde makes a distinct mutation signature in single-stranded DNA.” Nucleic Acids Research, 2022.
  16. Uscher, J. “Male Breast Cancer.“, 2023.
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