Heavy alcohol consumption is the second largest risk factor for the development of oral cancer, so drink smart to keep your healthy smile.
The holidays are synonymous with food, friends, family, and parties galore. While this holiday season is a great time to connect with those around you in a fun environment, the majority of us can safely say that we tend to indulge in the bubbly a little too often and a little too much. With the New Year on our minds, this is the time to refocus our energy on our health, and more specifically, our oral health.
Heavy, and even moderate, alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing cancers of the oral cavity, including the pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box) and esophagus. Additionally, the risk of developing cancer increases with the amount of alcohol a person consumes.
Alcohol is the common term for ethanol or ethyl alcohol, which is a chemical substance found in beer, wine and liquor, as well as some medicines and mouthwashes. The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 defines moderate and heavy alcohol consumption as one or three drinks per day for women and two drinks or four drinks per day for men, respectively.
Alcohol abuse, defined as more than 21 drinks in one week, is the second largest risk factor for the development of oral cancer, second only to tobacco. Moreover, there is an especially high risk when alcohol is combined with tobacco use, as scientists believe that these substances synergistically interact, increasing each other’s harmful effects.
Researchers have identified multiple ways that alcohol increases the risk of cancer. The dehydrating effect of alcohol on cell walls enhances the ability of tobacco carcinogens to permeate the mouth tissues. Also, when the body metabolizes the drink ethanol in alcoholic drinks, it becomes acetaldehyde, which is a toxic chemical that can damage both DNA (the genetic material that makes up genes) and proteins.
Heavy drinking also impairs the body’s ability to break down and absorb a variety of nutrients, including vitamins A, C, D and E, folate and carotenoids, lowering the body’s natural ability to use antioxidants to prevent the formation of cancers.
Symptoms of oral cancer include a sore or lesion in the mouth that doesn’t heal, difficulty chewing or swallowing, numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth, difficulty moving the jaw or tongue, and chronic hoarseness, among others.
It is widely accepted by scientists that eliminating the use of tobacco and reducing or eliminating your intake of alcohol will immediately begin to reduce your risk of developing oral cancer. For example, pharynx and esophageal cancer were found to decrease about 10 to 15 years after a person stops drinking alcohol, and approached a cancer risk level similar to that of non-drinkers/non-smokers.
So before you drink, think, and remember that water is your friend. Your oral cavity will thank you, and you’ll have a healthy smile as you embrace 2016!