Chronic consumption of alcoholic beverages is an accepted social custom worldwide. In the upper aerodigestive tract, local morphologic, metabolic and functional alterations are present due to alcohol consumption. A clinical link between the chronic consumption of alcohol and head and neck cancer has been observed for decades. While alcohol was described initially as a risk enhancer only in smokers, a number of epidemiological studies have now provided sufficient evidence that chronic alcohol consumption increases the risk of head and neck cancer independent of exposure to tobacco smoke. The systemic effects of alcohol interact with local changes in the morphology and function of the salivary glands. In addition, alcohol leads to accumulation of pathologic microbes within the mucosa, leading to chronic infection. Susceptibility to carcinogens and cell proliferation in the mucosa are increased, resulting in genetic changes with the development of dysplasia, leukoplacia and carcinoma. Chronic alcohol consumption is correlated with an increased risk of cancer and an increased mortality in a dose-effect relationship. A number of biologically plausible mechanisms exist by which alcohol may cause cancer. These mechanisms are discussed in this article.

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