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The Risks of Alcohol on Oral Cancer

  • A blog examining the risks of drinking and oral cancer.

    By Naomi Todd

What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer is the cancer that can occur in the mouth and can affect the lips, throat, tongue and cheeks. It does not matter if you have your own teeth or not. Mouth cancer is more common in men over 40. Sadly those diagnosed with mouth cancer increased by a third last year to 6,767 and the number of younger and female patients is also increasing.

Devastatingly 1,800 people die from oral cancer every year and many of these deaths could be prevented if the cancer was caught earlier.

Does drinking alcohol increase the risk?

It does. It has never been thought that alcohol has any protective benefits against cancer. It’s the alcohol molecule itself that does the damage to our bodies and increases our risk of diseases such as cancer. It doesn’t matter what form alcohol comes in: beer, spirits or wine – they all put our long-term health at risk.

Some charities specialising in helping people with alcohol addiction point out that recent research has found that any protective effect of alcohol is ultimately out-weighed by the associated health risk. The small protective effect that can be found at very low drinking levels is limited to women aged 55 and over. There is more research to be done.

Is there any science to prove a link?

There has been no single identified mechanism that explains why alcohol increases the risk of cancer. There are a number of different factors that play a role.

When you drink, the alcohol in your body is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This can damage your DNA (the material that makes up our genes) and stop your cells from repairing that damage, which can lead to cancer

In addition alcohol drinkers can have lower levels of an important vitamin called folate which helps our cells produce new DNA. Lower levels of folate may cause small changes to the DNA and lead to cancer.

There is also a strong link to oral cancer in those who drink alcohol and smoke tobacco. A recent review of studies in the International Journal of Cancer looked at how often oral and upper throat cancers occurred in those who both drink and smoke. It found that those who drank but had never smoked were around a third more likely to develop oral or upper throat cancer compared with non-drinkers. However, of those people who currently smoke or used to smoke the risk was almost three times higher compared with non-drinkers who have never smoked.

Anecdotally (although admittedly over 30 years ago) a study in Utah USA found that their rates of oral cancer were lower than in other states. Utah has a population that is two thirds Mormon, a population required to abstain completely from alcohol and tobacco.

What can I do?

Drink less. The Government has recently changed the guidelines for alcohol consumption. The guidance is now that 14 units of alcohol per week is the maximum one should consume and it is best to spread your drinking out throughout the week.

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