There is strong evidence to show that alcohol causes cancer. A review of research discovered having just one or two standard alcoholic drinks (25 grams of alcohol) per day increases your risk of several cancers. These include cancer of the mouth, throat and oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach), colon, rectum, liver and breast.
FACT: If you smoke and drink, your chances of getting mouth or throat cancer are even greater.
You’ve probably heard it time and time again that a glass of red wine is good for you. While red wine may have some protective benefits for your heart, this isn’t true for your cancer risk. According to published research, all types of alcoholic drinks increase your risk of cancer, even red wine. A review of 113 studies found a modest but a significant link between light drinking and breast cancer. It discovered just one drink a day (12.5 grams of alcohol, about 1.5 units) increases the risk of breast cancer by five percent in women.
Another review reported a significant link between light drinking and bowel cancer. It found those who drank slightly over one unit per day had a seven percent greater risk of colorectal cancer than non-drinkers or occasional drinkers. This figure jumped to 21 percent among people who drank one to four drinks a day.
FACT: It’s the alcohol that causes damage, not the type of drink it is.
Precisely how alcohol affects cancer risk isn’t completely understood. What we do know is that cancer is triggered by changes in our cell DNA. It’s likely that there are several ways in which alcohol raises your cancer risk.
- Alcohol can irritate and damage the tissues that line your mouth, throat, stomach and liver.
- Alcohol makes it easier for harmful chemicals, such as tobacco smoke, to enter the tissues. This may explain why your risk of getting mouth and throat cancer is higher if you smoke and drink together.
- Alcohol breaks down into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde, which is known to damage cell DNA.
- Alcohol reduces your body’s ability to absorb folate. Your cells need this vitamin to create new DNA.
- Alcohol raises levels of hormones such as oestrogen in the body. Oestrogen stimulates cells to grow and multiply in the breast tissue. This may explain the effect alcohol has on risk of breast cancer in women.
Cutting down on alcohol can certainly reduce your risk of some cancers. How about going sober for a month to see how much better you feel? This could kick-start a new habit of not drinking as much as regularly.
Instead of going to the pub or having a drink at home, try going to the gym or doing another activity you enjoy. How about the cinema, going for a walk or cooking a new recipe at home for your family or friends to try? There are also great alcohol-free alternatives if you do end up meeting friends for a drink.
If you’re having difficulty cutting down your drinking, or think your drinking is affecting your day-to-day life, see your doctor. He or she will assess how much you drink, the reason why you drink and can offer you support and advice to cut down.
Take a look at our information on sensible drinking to find out how you can take steps towards making a positive change.
- Bagnardi V, Blangiardo M, La Vecchia C, et al. Alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer – a meta-analysis. Alcohol Res Health 2001; 25(4):263–70
- Seitz HK, Pelucchi C, Bagnardi V, et al. Epidemiology and pathophysiology of alcohol and breast cancer: update 2012. Alcohol and Alcoholism 2012; 47(3):204–212. doi:10.1093/alcalc/ags011
- Fedirko V, Tramacere I, Bagnardi V, et al. Alcohol drinking and colorectal cancer risk: an overall and dose-response meta-analysis of published studies. Ann Oncol 2011; 22(9):1958–72. doi:10.1093/annonc/mdq653
- Alcohol and cancer. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, accessed 7 October 2013
- Alcohol consumption and cancer risk: understanding possible causal mechanisms for breast and colorectal cancers, November 2010. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. www.ahrq.gov
- Alcohol and cancer: the evidence. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, last reviewed 5 February 2013
We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.
Let us know what you think using our short feedback form Ask us a question
Produced by Nargis Mandry, Bupa Health Information Team, November 2013.
Let us know what you think using our short feedback form Ask us a question
About our health information
At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.
Information StandardWe are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
What our readers say about us
But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.
“Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.”
“It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.”
“Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.”
Meet the team
Head of health content and clinical engagement
- Dylan Merkett – Lead Editor – UK Customer
- Nick Ridgman – Lead Editor – UK Health and Care Services
- Natalie Heaton – Specialist Editor – User Experience
- Pippa Coulter – Specialist Editor – Content Library
- Alice Rossiter – Specialist Editor – Insights
- Laura Blanks – Specialist Editor – Quality
- Michelle Harrison – Editorial Assistant
Our core principles
All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.
In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.
We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.
We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.
Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.
The Information Standard certification scheme
You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.
It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.
Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.
British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards
We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.
If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can write to us:
Health Content Team
15-19 Bloomsbury Way