Alcohol and oral cancer

Oral cancer is the general term for cancer which develops in the mouth and neck. People who drink alcohol are particularly at risk from mouth cancer (especially if they smoke) so it’s important to understand how to recognise symptoms and know what you can do to reduce the risk.

Statistics show that mouth cancer rates are seeing a rapid increase (1). In 2012 there were 7,316 new cases of oral cancer in the UK (2), that’s around 20 people every day being diagnosed with this cancer. Mouth cancer is now the 10th most common cancer in men and 15th most common in women.

Types of Oral Cancer

There are four main types of oral cancer:

  • Mouth cancer
  • Pharyngeal cancer (upper throat)
  • Oesophageal cancer (food pipe)
  • Laryngeal cancer (voice box)

Mouth cancer is most common, but tumours can develop anywhere in the mouth and throat, including tonsils and saliva glands.

Oral cancer and alcohol

If you drink alcohol regularly, your mouth and throat are often in close contact with alcohol, which is a serious risk factor for all types of oral cancer.

A 2010 study found that people who had four or more drinks a day had about five times the risk of mouth and pharynx cancers compared to people who never drank or drank only occasionally (3).

Limiting the risk of oral cancer is one reason to drink within the government’s recommended unit guidelines of 14 units a week for both men and women.

Oral cancer symptoms

Catching oral cancer early is important because early diagnosis by a dentist or doctor makes it much more likely that you’ll make a full recovery. The main symptoms of oral cancer are:

  • Red or white lesions  inside the mouth perhaps on the side or under the tongue (or in the  floor of the mouth)
  • A swelling or a single ulcer that has been present for more than two week

Early symptoms

If you have an ulcer that isn’t painful it’s important that you still get it checked by a dentist or doctor. Painful oral cancer symptoms don’t develop until the cancer is at a more advanced stage.

Swelling or an ulcer may be the first sign of oral cancer. The earlier it is diagnosed the more likely you’ll make a full recovery.

Later symptoms

Later signs of oral cancer can include a numb feeling in the mouth, pain or an ulcer beginning to weep blood. If you experience one or more of those symptoms it’s vital you see a dentist or doctor as soon as you can.

The mouth is a part of the body which normally heals quickly so it’s very important to get any long-term problems checked by your dentist or doctor.

Your dentist is often best equipped to spot oral cancer warning signs. Not missing your dental check-ups is important, even if you no longer have any of your own teeth. They screen your mouth and can help diagnose mouth or throat cancer before you notice that something is wrong.

Alcohol and smoking

Combining smoking with alcohol increases the risk of getting oral cancer even further. Tobacco is highly carcinogenic, and alcohol makes the mouth more absorbent, which allows these carcinogens to enter the body.

Professor Graham Ogden, a mouth cancer specialist, illustrates the danger of drinking and smoking by pointing out that: “A pack of cigarettes a day increases your risk of developing oral cancer but smoking a pack a day with drinking consistently above the recommended safe limits for   alcohol  greatly increases your risk  for contracting oral cancer.”

Other causes of oral cancer

Other than alcohol and smoking there are other risk factors for oral cancer.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

A risk factor which many people aren’t aware of is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is a virus which affects the skin, cervix, anus, mouth and throat and is passed through sexual contact. In most cases the virus doesn’t do any harm because your body fights it off but if it remains it can cause health problems.

There are over 100 types of HPV, many are harmless but other types can cause cancer. A recent study found that people infected with HPV were 32 times more likely to develop oral or throat cancers. (4)

To reduce the risk of HPV infection it’s important that you use a condom during sex, including oral and anal sex.


An unhealthy lifestyle, poor diet and poor oral hygiene can put you at greater risk of developing mouth or throat cancer.

Preventing oral cancer

There are several things you can do to prevent oral cancer, the best way to reduce risk is to:

Practising safe sex and wearing a condom can help prevent HPV and reduce the risk of developing oral cancer. Wearing a condom can’t guarantee you’ll be fully protected against HPV but it can greatly reduce the risk.

There’s also a vaccination offered to all girls aged between 12 and 13 (year eight in schools in England), which will protect them from HPV in the future (5). A school will inform parents when girls are due to be vaccinated. More information about the HPV vaccine is available on the NHS Choices website.

If you’d like to understand more about alcohol units and get advice, tips and motivation to drink within recommended levels download the Drinkaware Track and Calculate Units mobile app or use our MyDrinkaware tool for desktop computers.


Page updated: January 2016