Potential causes and risk factors

Every year oesophageal cancer affects around 8,300 people in the UK.  Its exact causes are still unknown but evidence shows that certain factors can increase the risk of developing cancer.

The main risk factors linked to oesophageal cancer include:

  • long-term acid reflux
  • gender
  • age
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • diet
  • previous cancer treatment
  • medical conditions.

What are risk factors?

We don’t know exactly what causes oesophageal cancer. We know that certain things called risk factors can increase a person’s chances of developing it. Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean you will definitely get oesophageal cancer. Equally, if you don’t have any risk factors, it doesn’t mean you won’t get oesophageal cancer.

Long-term acid reflux

Oesophageal cancer seems to be more common in people who have long-term acid reflux. This is when stomach acid flows back up into the oesophagus. It can happen in people with conditions such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). Acid reflux can damage the oesophagus and can lead to a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus. This is when abnormal cells develop in the lining of the lower end of the oesophagus. This is not a cancer, but a small number of people (less than 1%) with Barrett’s oesophagus may go on to develop cancer.

It is known as a pre-cancerous condition.

Age and gender


The risk of developing oesophageal cancer increases as you get older. It’s less common in people under 45.


Oesophageal cancer is more common in men than in women.



The longer a person smokes and the more tobacco they smoke, the more likely they are to develop oesophageal cancer. All types of smoking are harmful, but it’s more damaging to smoke cigarettes than a pipe or cigars.


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.


Drinking a lot of alcohol over a long period of time increases your risk. People who drink alcohol and also smoke may have a greater risk of developing oesophageal cancer.


Eating lots of red and processed meats (such as sausages, ham and burgers) may increase your risk of oesophageal cancer. Eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables may help to reduce the risk.

Some evidence suggests that drinking very hot drinks may increase the risk of developing oesophageal cancer. This is because hot drinks may damage the lining of the oesophagus.

Previous cancer treatment

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

Other rare medical conditions

  • Achalasia – This is a condition where the muscle that controls the opening between the oesophagus and the stomach doesn’t relax properly. People with achalasia have a higher risk of developing oesophageal cancer.
  • Tylosis – This is a rare inherited skin condition. People with tylosis have a high risk of developing oesophageal cancer.

In most people, oesophageal cancer isn’t caused by an inherited faulty gene. So it’s unlikely that your children will develop oesophageal cancer if you have it.

Oesophageal cancer is not infectious and can’t be passed on to other people.