Acid Reflux Linked to Neck Cancers

Peter Russell

December 22, 2017

Millions of us will be familiar with the uncomfortable sensations of acid reflux – never more so than at Christmas.

Now, a US study has found that gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may increase the risk of cancer of the throat, tonsils and parts of the sinuses in older people.

Experts say the research does not prove cause and effect but that the findings underline the importance of asking for medical advice if acid reflux becomes a long-lasting problem.

A Burning Sensation

The main symptoms of acid reflux are heartburn, which feels like something is burning in the centre of your chest. You may also experience an unpleasant, sour taste in the mouth. This is because in people with GERD, stomach acid leaks into the oesophagus, the food pipe that leads to the throat.

The latest study, led by the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, involved 13,805 American men and women aged 66 and older who had respiratory and neck cancers. Their medical histories were compared to an equal number of similar people who did not have cancer.

The researchers found that the strongest association between acid reflux and cancer occurred in the voice box, or larynx, and the weakest association was with cancer of the sinuses.

Overall, they say that, compared with people who did not have GERD, older people with the condition were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with certain neck cancers.

The researchers say their study, published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, had some limits, particularly that the added risks from drinking and smoking were not taken into account.

However, they say that identifying those at risk, improving surveillance, and initiating earlier treatment may be warranted.

Acid Reflux Tips

Dr Jasmine Just from Cancer Research UK comments in an emailed statement: "It’s still not clear if people with acid reflux have a higher risk of developing head and neck cancers. This study did find a link, but it didn’t take into account proven risk factors for these cancer types, like smoking and drinking alcohol, so it’s not possible to know what effect, if any, acid reflux is having.

"But it’s a good idea to tell your doctor about any lasting or unusual changes, such as acid reflux that keeps coming back."

The NHS recommends that if you experience acid reflux, you should try to:

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals

  • Raise one end of your bed 10 to 20cm by putting something under your bed or mattress, so that stomach acid cannot travel up to the throat

  • Try to lose weight if you are overweight

  • Find ways to relax


Association of Gastroesophageal Reflux with Malignancy of the Upper Aerodigestive Tract in Elderly Patients, Riley C et al, JAMA Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery

Cancer Research UK

NHS Choices


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