Causes and risk factors of oesophageal cancer

It is unknown exactly what causes oesophageal cancer, but certain risk factors can increase the chance of developing it.

What are risk factors?

We do not know exactly what causes oesophageal cancer. But certain things called risk factors can increase the chance of developing it. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get oesophageal cancer. And if you do not have any risk factors, you may still get oesophageal cancer.

Oesophageal cancer is not infectious and cannot be passed from one person to another.

If you are worried about oesophageal cancer and would like to talk to someone, we're here. You can:


Long-term acid reflux

When too much stomach acid flows back up into the oesophagus, it is called acid reflux or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). It causes heartburn and food to come back up into your mouth. GORD is a common problem. People with GORD have a slightly higher risk of oesophageal cancer.

Barrett's oesophagus

In some people, acid reflux causes damage to the cells in the lining of the oesophagus. Over time this causes abnormal cells to develop in the lower oesophagus. This is called Barrett’s oesophagus. It is not cancer, but a small number of people with Barrett’s oesophagus develop cancer. It is a pre-cancerous condition.


Being overweight may increase your risk of developing oesophageal cancer. This may be because long-term acid reflux is more common in people who are overweight.


Oesophageal cancer is more common in men than in women.


The risk of developing oesophageal cancer increases as you get older. Most oesophageal cancers are diagnosed in people over the age of 40.


Smoking increases the risk of oesophageal cancer. The longer a person smokes for and the more they smoke, the greater the risk. All types of smoking are harmful. You also have an increased risk of oesophageal cancer if you use betel quid (paan or pan). Smoking shisha may also increase your risk.


Drinking a lot of alcohol over a long period of time increases your risk of developing oesophageal cancer. Your risk increases if you drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. People who drink alcohol and also smoke may have a greater risk.


Eating a diet that is high in fat and cholesterol may increase your risk of developing oesophageal cancer. Eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables may help to reduce the risk.

Previous cancer treatment

Radiotherapy to the chest area can increase your risk of developing oesophageal cancer. This is very rare.
Related pages

Other medical conditions

There are two rare conditions that can increase the risk of oesophageal cancer:

  • Achalasia is when the muscle that controls the opening between the oesophagus and the stomach does not relax properly.
  • Tylosis is an inherited skin condition.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 30 September 2019
Next review: 30 September 2022

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

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