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.
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:
Current or history of certain medical conditions that may increase the risk of esophageal cancer include:
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Esophageal cancer. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal-disorders/tumors-of-the-gi-tract/esophageal-cancer. Updated July 2014. Accessed January 3, 2017.
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