The hidden danger of piping hot tea

I’ve never been a fan of hot beverages like coffee or hot tea — even the smallest amount of caffeine makes me feel jittery. So needless to say, what some people see as daily necessities have never really been part of my routine, in the morning or otherwise.

But I realize I’m a bit of an exception in this regard. Many of my patients love having a hot mug in their hands — and maybe you do too. So even though I can’t relate on a personal level, I felt I needed to share this (admittedly odd, but ultimately sensible) study with you.

This study followed more than 450,000 subjects for nearly a decade. The results showed that, in combination with daily alcohol use or smoking, a daily cup of piping hot tea could significantly increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

And when I say “significantly,” I mean it: The risk of esophageal cancer was five times higher when subjects drank both hot tea and more than 1.5 ounces of alcohol daily. (As compared to drinking hot tea less than once a week, and consuming less alcohol per day.)

Meanwhile, the risk doubled among daily hot tea drinkers who smoked, compared to non-smoking, occasional hot tea drinkers.

This might come as a shock to anyone who regularly brews up tea for the purpose of cancer prevention. Though really, it probably shouldn’t. (Multiple versions of this theory have been circulating since the 1930s — and it’s not nearly as trivial as it sounds.)

For one thing, this study concluded that a daily cup of tea — whatever the temperature — was not a sole contributor to the increased risk of esophageal cancer. It was the combination of tea with either the alcohol or smoking that proved dangerous.

That being said, I’m not convinced that chronic heat exposure to the esophagus is completely out of the question for initiating carcinogenesis. After all, if you’ve ever eaten anything too hot — like a spoonful of steaming soup, or a slice of pizza — you know very well what it does to the roof of your mouth. It burns, and indeed, burns are injuries.

Call me crazy, but dousing a damaged part of the body with alcohol and cigarette smoke can’t possibly be healthy. In fact, previous research has suggested that chronic heat exposure might degrade cells’ barrier function… making them all the more vulnerable to any given substance’s toxic effects.

Look at it that way, and this unlikely connection starts to sound a lot more plausible.

It was strong enough to catch the attention of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. They recently classified any beverage hotter than 65° C (149° F) as a probable carcinogen.

To put this into perspective, most Americans drink their coffee at around 60° C, or 140° F — that’s cutting it pretty close if you ask me.

But I’m not about to tell you to toss your tea kettle. Why? Because green tea, in particular, is one of the healthiest beverages you can drink. And if you like it hot, well, then that’s how you should enjoy it. (In fact, just a couple of months ago, I reported on a study showing that hot tea can slash your risk of glaucoma—a leading cause of blindness—by 74 percent.)

But if it’s hot enough to take your skin off? Maybe let it cool down a bit, take a moment to enjoy the relaxing aroma, and sip slowly.