Alcohol Intake When Receiving Radiation for Head & Neck Cancer

Last Modified: May 29, 2008


Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"

When receiving radiation therapy for throat cancer, can you have a few beers on the weekend when you aren’t getting radiation?


Pinaki R. Dutta, MD, PhD, Resident in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, responds:

Thank you for your question. It is a common question that we are asked by our patients receiving radiation treatment. We discourage alcohol intake during radiation for head & neck cancers.

Although there are no studies showing that drinking in moderation during the weekends or in the evenings is detrimental in controlling the disease, there are some serious issues involved. Alcohol is an irritant and can worsen the inflammation or mucositis caused by the radiation therapy. This can interfere with your body’s ability to heal the normal tissue in your mouth and throat. The direct contact of the alcohol on the irritated mucosa can also be painful and irritating. Multiple studies have shown that smoking and drinking are risk factors for the development of not only head and neck but also many other cancers. It is thought that the alcohol can work as a solvent to allow carcinogens from smoke or other sources to permeate into the mouth and body. Therefore, drinking in general may increase your risk of developing cancer in other parts of your head and neck. Likewise, studies have shown that patients who continue to smoke during radiation treatments do worse than those who do not smoke. I hope that helps you see why we discourage alcohol intake during radiation therapy and helps you in your decision making.