Risk factors and causes of oesophageal cancer

In the UK, around 8,750 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer each year. We do not know exactly what causes oesophageal cancer. But, we know that certain things called risk factors can increase a person’s chances of developing it.

The main risk factors linked to oesophageal cancer include:

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

Oesophageal cancer is not usually caused by an inherited faulty gene. So, it is unlikely that your children will develop oesophageal cancer if you have it.

Oesophageal cancer is not infectious and cannot be passed on to other people.

Potential risk factors and causes

Oesophageal cancer is becoming more common in Europe and North America. In the UK, around 8,750 people are diagnosed with it each year.

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


Long-term acid reflux

Oesophageal cancer is 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 lining of the oesophagus and can lead to a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus. This is when abnormal cells develop in the lining of the lower oesophagus. It 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.


Obesity

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.


Gender

Oesophageal cancer is more common in men than in women.


Age

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


Smoking

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 is more damaging to smoke cigarettes than a pipe or cigars. You also have an increased risk of oesophageal cancer if you use betel quid (paan or pan). Smoking shisha may also increase your risk.


Alcohol

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

We have more information about alcohol drinking guidelines.


Diet

Eating lots of red and processed meats (such as sausages, ham, and burgers) may increase your risk of developing 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.

We have more information about healthy eating.


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

Oesophageal cancer is not usually caused by an inherited faulty gene. So, it is unlikely that your children will develop oesophageal cancer if you have it.

Oesophageal cancer is not infectious and cannot be passed on to other people.

Back to Diagnosing

Barrett's oesophagus

Barrett's oesophagus is a condition that can sometimes develop into cancer of the lower oesophagus.