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Can Hot Drinks Cause Cancer? PDF Print Email

It has just been reported that very hot drinks may cause cancer, but coffee does not, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The review was conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a specialised cancer agency of the WHO.

it was concluded that only hot drinks higher than 65C posed a possible cancer risk.

The report looked at risks associated with coffee, maté (a South American drink like a very strong tea drunk very hot and through a metal straw), and very hot beverages.


Coffee was classified as a possible cause of cancer in 1991 but the report has dismissed this and said any previous link was because of the very hot temperature of the drink.


The researchers concluded there was limited evidence that drinking coffee and maté causes cancer but state that the risk of cancer of the oesophagus may increase with drinks above 65C (149F).

It has been suggested that leaving your cup of tea or coffee for around five minutes should cool it to a safe level.


To give an idea coffee bought from a shop is usually hot, between 66 and 81C so it is best to let it cool a little first although current research says smoking or alcohol pose a bigger, known risk for oesophageal cancer.


The group of researchers look at environmental factors that can increase the risk of cancer.  They reviewed epidemiological studies of exposure to carcinogens (substances that can cause cancer) in humans and used the evidence to classify potential risks as:

group 1 – carcinogenic to humans

group 2A – probably carcinogenic

group 2B – possibly carcinogenic

group 3 – not classifiable (no evidence to make a reliable judgement)

group 4 – probably not carcinogenic


It must be noted that the degree of risk is not apparent.  For example, smoking cigarettes and using a sunbed are both group 1 hazards but the risk of cancer associated with smoking cigarettes is far higher than using a sunbed.


The findings are published to help health agencies in preventing exposure to potential carcinogens.

As part of their research the group assessed more than 1,000 studies.


They concluded:

coffee drinking was "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans" (group 3)

maté was "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans" (group 3)

hot drinks above 65C were "probably carcinogenic to humans" (group 2A)


Coffee drinking was evaluated by the IARC in 1991 and classified as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" (group 2B).  The latest evaluation was based on a much larger and more robust sample of evidence.  A collection of epidemiological evidence was assessed and the most weight given to case control studies that had controlled for other exposures, such as tobacco and alcohol consumption.

The studies followed people who self-reported their coffee drinking to see how many of them went on to develop cancer and how it was related to their consumption of coffee.


It was found the majority of epidemiological studies showed no association between drinking coffee and cancers of the pancreas, breast, and prostate. Reduced risks were identified for liver and endometrial cancers.

After the study the group concluded the evidence for "coffee drinking causing cancer" was inadequate. Reasons included insufficient data, inconsistency of findings, inadequate control of potential confounders, and bias.


In terms of mate, which as well as being popular in South America is also the national drink of Argentina, the researchers found cancer of the oesophagus was associated with drinking mate at a very hot temperature, rather than maté at warm or cold temperatures.


The researchers also studied the association between oesophageal cancer and other hot drinks.  Previous research from other countries have suggested the risk of cancer may increase with the temperature of the drink.

The results showed that regardless of the amount consumed, the risk of cancer increased with an increase in temperature of the drink.

There were significant differences in the results from drinking very hot maté, but not with warm maté.

The studies suggested the carcinogenic effects occur when drinking at temperatures above 65C.


The assessment is produced so the World Health Organization, health agencies and government departments can consider it when deciding health policies. Whatever they decide to do is their choice.


Professor Tim Underwood, associate professor in surgery at the University of Southampton, said: "The bottom line here is that drinking very hot liquids is a cause of squamous cell cancer of the oesophagus, but the IARC classification can't tell us anything about the size of the risk – so we shouldn't take from this that there's a high risk of developing oesophageal cancer after drinking very hot drinks."

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor of the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, said: "Last year the IARC said that bacon is carcinogenic, but it became clear that when eaten in moderation it is not very risky.

"In the case of very hot drinks, the IARC conclude they are probably hazardous, but can't say how big the risk might be. This may be interesting science, but makes it difficult to construct a sensible response."


It seems the sensible thing to do is not drink anything too hot - a drink that would burn you if spilt on your skin.

If you are concerned at all about a prolonged sore throat or any other health issue you should make an appointment with your doctor.