An Overview of the Link Between Hot Tea and Esophageal Cancer

Recent research shows that drinking very hot beverages increases the risk

Curling up with a cup of hot tea can be soothing, and it is an important cultural ritual in many areas of the world. However, there may be a hidden danger lurking in your cup.

The Link Between Hot Tea and Esophageal Cancer - Illustration by Nez Riaz

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Recent studies have shown that drinking very hot tea, especially in large amounts, can significantly increase your risk for esophageal cancer, by up to 90%. Seeing that number can be terrifying, especially since esophageal cancer has a grim prognosis. 

It’s helpful to put this information in perspective. Esophageal cancer is very rare. In the United States, only 1% of cancer diagnoses are this type of cancer. However, if you’re a tea drinker, it’s important to understand the connection between hot tea and esophageal cancer.

Here’s what you should know about the added risk and how to protect yourself.

Hot Tea and Esophageal Cancer: How Hot Is Too Hot?

To understand the connection between hot tea and esophageal cancer, it’s important to understand the esophagus.

The esophagus is a tube of muscle that connects your throat to your stomach. When you eat or drink, the food or liquid passes down your throat, into the esophagus—which is about 10 inches long—before passing into the stomach. 

When you drink hot tea, you risk not only burning your mouth or throat, but damaging your esophagus. Over time, this can increase cancer risk.

In 2016, the World Health Organization released a warning that hot liquids are probably carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. The warning specifically covered liquids, particularly teas, that are consumed at over 70 C, or about 150 F.

The risk for cancer increases the hotter the beverage is.

Since then, subsequent studies have looked at the risk of consuming liquids that are slightly less hot. A 2019 study of Iranian tea drinkers found that consuming more than 700 mL of tea daily at temperatures of 60 C (140 F) or higher increases the risk for esophageal cancer by 90%, compared to people who drank less tea at a lower temperature.

You Can Still Drink Tea

According to the World Health Organization, it’s best to stick to teas that are cooler than 150 F. Letting your tea sit for longer before consuming it, or adding milk, can help it cool off.

Esophageal Cancer and Other Hot Liquids

The increased risk for esophageal cancer isn’t particular to tea, but to any type of very hot liquid. The rates of this type of cancer are highest in Asia, South America, and East Africa, where drinking hot tea is common as part of the culture.

Tea and maté—an infused drink similar to tea found mainly in South America—are both consumed at very hot temperatures. Maté does not increase the risk for esophageal cancer when it’s consumed at lower temperatures.

Can Hot Coffee Increase the Risk of Esophageal Cancer?

Coffee is not a carcinogen in and of itself. However, it can cause the same damage as tea when it is consumed at temperatures above 150 F.

The Signs and Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer

The signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer are hard to spot and often don’t emerge until the cancer is advanced. The primary symptom of esophageal cancer is difficulty swallowing, which occurs in at least 90% of people who experience symptoms. This includes the sensation of choking or of food getting stuck. It is caused when cancerous growths narrow the esophagus. 

The other symptoms of esophageal cancer are:

  • Painful swallowing: This occurs in about 20% of people. The pain might present at the back of the chest.
  • Regurgitation and vomiting: This occurs in 40% of people with esophageal cancer and happens when food can’t pass through the esophagus.
  • Unintentional weight loss and dietary changes: People with esophageal cancer often change their diets due to difficulty swallowing. This occurs in about half of people with this cancer. 
  • Heartburn and indigestion
  • Coughing and hoarseness
  • Black stools: These are caused by bleeding from the esophagus. 

Diagnosis and Treatment of Esophageal Cancer

 Esophageal cancer is diagnosed through a series of procedures. Typically, they are:

  • Upper endoscopy: This procedure inserts a small camera into the throat so that your doctor can see your esophagus. 
  • Barium swallow: Your doctor may initially recommend this less-invasive way of imaging the esophagus. 
  • Biopsy: During an endoscopy, doctors remove a tissue sample and test it for cancer cells. This can diagnose cancer, as well as the stage of cancer. 

A healthcare provider might recommend additional scans or procedures, like a CT scan, to determine whether the cancer has spread. 

The treatments for esophageal cancer depend on the stage at which it is found. Treatments include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Clinical trials

Many people also pursue palliative care to improve their quality of life during treatment.

Ways to Prevent Esophageal Cancer

There are many risk factors for esophageal cancer. Some of them you can control, but others you cannot. Esophageal cancer is more common in people who:

  • Smoke
  • Use alcohol heavily
  • Drink very hot beverages
  • Have exposure to chemicals or toxins
  • Eat a diet high in grilled meats and nitrates, and low in fruits and vegetables

Reducing the amount that you smoke or drink alcohol, avoiding very hot beverages, and immediately seeking medical attention if you have trouble swallowing can all help prevent esophageal cancer and improve prognosis. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you burn your esophagus by drinking hot liquids?

Yes. Drinking liquids over 150 F is associated with higher burn risk and greater risk for developing esophageal cancer.

What are the side effects of drinking too much hot tea?

People who drink very hot tea, over 150 F, appear to have a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer.

This may help explain why this type of cancer is rare in the United States but is more common in Asia, South America, and East Africa, where drinking hot tea is more common.

 What is the safest way to drink hot tea?

It’s best to let your tea cool to a temperature below 150 F before you drink it. You can add milk or another cool liquid, or simply wait longer between pouring the tea and consuming it to allow it to cool. 

A Word From Verywell

Drinking tea is important culturally for many people. For others, it’s simply a way to relax and unwind. Consuming very hot tea—or other very hot beverages—appears to increase the risk for esophageal cancer, so it’s best to let your tea cool before consuming it. 

If you’re a frequent tea drinker, however, there’s little need to worry. Esophageal cancer is very rare in the United States. Talk to your doctor about any concerns and get medical attention if you start showing symptoms, but continue to enjoy your tea, at a slightly lower temperature.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Islami F, Poustchi H, Pourshams A, et al. A prospective study of tea drinking temperature and risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinomaInt J Cancer. 2020;146(1):18-25. doi:10.1002/ijc.32220

  2. American Cancer Society. Esophageal cancers statistics.

  3. International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization. IARC monographs evaluate drinking coffee, maté, and very hot beverages.

  4. MedlinePlus. Esophageal cancer.

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.