A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
It is possible to develop esophageal cancer with or without the risk factors listed below. However, the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of developing esophageal cancer. If you have a number of risk factors, ask your doctor about reducing your risk.
Some factors cannot be altered, such as age or gender. Esophageal cancer is over 3 times more common in men than in women. Though esophageal cancer can occur at any age, the risk increases with age. Adenocarcinoma incidence is highest in people aged 50-60 years old, while squamous cell carcinoma is more likely to be found in people aged 60-70 years old.
Other factors that may increase your chance of esophageal cancer include:
Smoking and chewing tobacco contain cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) that are absorbed through the surface of the esophagus, causing irritation and cellular changes. The risk of cancer increases with the amount of tobacco used and the number of years as a tobacco user. All forms of tobacco are strongly and directly associated with esophageal cancer, especially squamous cell carcinoma. The risk drops once tobacco use is stopped.
Alcohol itself is not considered a carcinogen, but a by-product of alcohol may create a highly toxic agent that irritates the esophagus. As with tobacco, prolonged alcohol use is directly associated with an increased risk of esophageal cancer, especially squamous cell carcinoma.
Alcohol and Tobacco Combined
The combined effect of alcohol and tobacco use has been shown to substantially multiply the risk of esophageal cancer. The risk of esophageal cancer may increase 3-fold in people who use both alcohol and tobacco compared to using one either alone.
Diets high in red meat consumption are associated with an increased risk of esophageal cancer. Processed meats may also increase risk, but a clear link has not been established. Squamous cell carinoma risk is higher in those who drink very hot liquids without allowing time for them to cool down. Repeated exposure to high temperatures may affect the cellular structure of the esophagus.
Exposure to certain chemicals through work, accidents, or lifestyle habits can harm the esophagus and increase the risk of cancer. These may include:
- Harsh chemicals like drain cleaners or lye can burn or damage cells that line the esophagus. Damage can result in scar tissue that narrows the esophagus, making it difficult for food to pass from the throat to the stomach.
- Certain occupations increase exposure to harmful chemicals. Inhaled chemicals may injure the esophagus. Risk may be higher in people who are exposed to solvents in dry cleaning.
- Radiation therapy aimed at the abdomen or chest may cause damage to the esophagus.
Current or history of certain medical conditions that may increase the risk of esophageal cancer include:
- Barrett’s esophagus —Barrett’s esophagus is the change in the cells of the lower esophagus when they are exposed to acid from the stomach. The acid reflux causes the cells to change from the normal squamous cells to columnar cells normally found in the intestine.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—Gastric contents, including acid, chronically refluxes from the stomach into the esophagus causing irritation and discomfort..
- Obesity —Obesity is associated with Barrett's esophagus and GERD. Excess weight causes more pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which contributes to acid reflux.
- Achalasia —The LES does not open properly, so food and liquids have a hard time moving into the stomach. The delay can cause irritation to the cells of the esophagus.
- Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection —HPV can cause normal cells to become abnormal. Persistent HPV infection has been linked to increased risk of several cancers.
- Nutrient deficiencies —Being deficient in folic acid, vitamins A and C, and riboflavin, molybdenum, and selenium increases the risk of esophageal cancer.
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Esophagus cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003098-pdf.pdf. Accessed January 3, 2017.
General information about esophageal cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/esophageal/patient/esophageal-treatment-pdq#section/all. Updated July 19, 2016. Accessed January 3, 2017.
Jelski W, Szmitkowski M. Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) in the cancer diseases. Clin Chim Acta. 2008;395(1-2):1-5.
Prabhu A, Obi KO, Rubenstein JH. The synergistic effects of alcohol and tobacco consumption on the risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma: a meta-analysis. Am J Gastroenterol. 2014;109(6):822-827.
Last reviewed February 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 3/10/2021