WHEN reporting medical research or a new finding, it is vitally important that any information is conveyed appropriately and accurately, and that sensationalising or distorting the facts in order to generate publicity is avoided.

So it was disheartening to read the headline “Drinking Hot Tea increases your risk of Oesophageal Cancer fivefold”, last week in an online national newspaper. As a nation of tea drinkers I fear many individuals who saw that headline will have been lying awake at night fearful that their consumption of the humble cuppa may be their undoing.

To clarify the facts, the reality is that a study in China showed that if you drank scalding hot tea as well as regularly consuming alcohol and tobacco, you were more likely to develop cancer of the oesophagus. However, the practice of drinking very hot tea is not usual in the UK, where many people will add milk hence cooling the liquid.

However this research has raised the important topic of oesophageal cancer, a disease that sadly has not seen a great improvement in outcomes and survival figures over the last 20 years, despite great strides in surgical techniques and care thereafter.

The oesophagus, also known as the gullet, is the pipe which connects the mouth with the stomach. It runs through the chest and where it pierces the diaphragm it becomes the stomach.

Oesophageal cancer is thankfully rare before the age of 55, with most cases diagnosed between the ages of 60-70. In the UK there are just over nine thousand new cases a year, with less than 15% still alive five years later. The main reason for poor survival rates may be that people with symptoms ignore them at the start of the disease, only seeking medical help when the situation becomes disabling, at which point the cancer has potentially spread.

Difficulty swallowing is perhaps the most obvious indication that something is wrong. Other signs include persistent indigestion, regurgitating food, recurrent vomiting, and pain in the upper abdomen, chest or back that gets worse and just won’t go away. A cough that doesn’t subside or unexplained weight loss should never be ignored.

The actual risk factors for cancer of the gullet are smoking, excess alcohol, untreated acid reflux and obesity. Smoking and alcohol cause changes in the cells lining the oesophagus, with cancer developing from these alterations. Although the stomach is designed to cope with the acid it produces, the oesophagus is not, and so gastric acid constantly irritating the gullet is also a cause. The junction between the oesophagus and stomach is usually closed, but being overweight or obese can cause this to open with more acid flowing back into the gullet.

In summary, drinking tea has not yet been proven to be a risk factor for developing oesophageal cancer. However, if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, I would advise you to attend your GP as soon as possible for a discussion and investigation as required.