Understanding the Relationship Between Alcohol and Kidney Cancer
Medically reviewed by Joseph Brito III, MD
Written by Jacquelyn Cafasso
April 26, 2022
The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs that filter out waste from your blood. The kidneys also maintain the proper balance of fluid and electrolytes in the body.
Though scientists agree that alcohol can play a role in the development of certain types of cancer, kidney cancer isn’t one of them.
However, alcohol consumption can have negative effects on the body and should generally be avoided if you want to keep your kidneys healthy. Kidney disease can also have an indirect link to alcohol consumption.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with kidney cancer, your doctor may suggest certain lifestyle changes as part of your treatment plan. This may include avoiding alcohol. Excess alcohol can have harmful effects on the kidneys or worsen the side effects of your cancer treatment.
Having an occasional glass of alcohol may not cause any harmful effects if your kidney functions regularly. Still, you should talk with your doctor about the safety and impact of drinking alcohol if you already have kidney disease or kidney cancer.
Can excess alcohol drinking cause kidney cancer or kidney damage?
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) (Trusted Source), there is a widesperad agreement among scientists that alcohol can cause several types of cancer, like head and neck cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer, and breast cancer.
However, 2012 research shows that alcohol consumption is actually associated with a lower risk of developing kidney cancer. While this might suggest a potential benefit of drinking alcohol, the NCI (Trusted Source) stresses that any potential benefits are likely outweighed by the harms of alcohol consumption.
Drinking alcohol often can cause kidney damage over time. According to the National Kidney Foundation, regular heavy drinking may double your risk of chronic kidney disease (CKD), a condition that isn’t curable.
The risk of developing CKD from heavy drinking also increases if you smoke. Smoking (Trusted Source) is also one of the most common risk factors for kidney cancer.
Binge drinking (Trusted Source), defined as having four or more drinks at a time, may result in a serious condition known as acute kidney injury. This occurs when the toxins from alcohol build up in your blood quickly and your kidneys are not able to maintain the right fluid balance.
What does alcohol do to your kidneys?
The function of the kidneys in the body is to filter harmful substances out of the body. Alcohol is considered one of those harmful substances. While alcohol is mainly metabolized by the liver, some of these substances are released through the kidneys.
So, if you drink alcohol, especially often, the kidneys must work harder to return your blood to its usual state.
What are the first signs of kidney damage from alcohol?
Over time, alcohol can damage the kidneys, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
At first, you might not have any symptoms of kidney damage from regular alcohol consumption. As the kidneys become overworked from heavy alcohol consumption, they will be less able to filter blood and maintain the correct water balance in the body.
As a result, you may experience the following symptoms:
- swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet due to fluid retention
- loss of appetite
- change in urine
- kidney pain
What are the long-term effects of alcohol on the kidneys?
Alcohol is also known to dehydrate the body, which can affect the regular function of the kidneys. People who drink too much are also more likely to have high blood pressure. Over time, this can cause damage to your kidneys and result in CKD.
Heavy drinking can also cause liver disease, which also makes your kidneys work harder. Kidney disease may be complicated by liver disease.
Once CKD develops, it can impact nearly every part of the body. If you have CKD, you may eventually require dialysis or a kidney transplant.
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When to talk with your doctor
If you’re currently taking medications for kidney cancer or are having surgery to remove a kidney (nephrectomy), talk with your doctor about how much alcohol is safe to have during treatment.
You should also talk with your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- pain in the kidneys
- a fever along with kidney pain
- loss of consciousness or confusion
- blood in the urine
- burning with urination or other symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI)
How kidneys recover from alcohol damage
Acute kidney damage caused by binge drinking will typically resolve within a few days. The damage can usually be reversed if you stop drinking and allow your kidneys to recover, but it can sometimes cause irreversible damage to the kidneys.
Regular heavy drinking can eventually cause CKD, which can lead to kidney failure. There’s no cure for CKD, but treatment can help relieve symptoms and keep it from getting worse.
Once you have kidney failure, you may require a kidney transplant. Heavy drinking makes it more difficult for you to qualify for a kidney transplant.
Frequently asked questions
Why do my kidneys hurt when I drink alcohol?
If you feel a sharp stabbing pain or a dull ache in your back under the ribcage when you drink alcohol, it’s possible that it’s your kidneys or a kidney stone. It also might be due to an anatomical issue, like a ureteropelvic junction obstruction. Both conditions would need to be evaluated and treated by your doctor.
Alcohol may also indirectly increase your risk of developing a UTI, which can cause kidney or abdominal pain.
Can I still have an occasional drink if I have kidney cancer?
Alcohol can worsen the side effects of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, such as nausea, dehydration, diarrhea, and mouth sores.
An occasional drink might be okay, but you should talk with your doctor about drinking alcohol if you’re undergoing treatment for kidney cancer.
Is it possible for alcohol to reduce the risk of kidney cancer?
Alcohol increases your risk of many types of cancer, including breast, liver, mouth, and colon. However, 2012 research suggests your risk of developing kidney cancer may be lower if you consume alcohol.
It’s unclear why this might occur, but experts warn that the risks of drinking alcohol don’t outweigh this potential benefit.
How much alcohol can I safely drink?
The American Cancer Society (Trusted Source) suggests that no one should drink alcohol due to its harmful effects on the body and its potential to increase your risk of cancer. If you’ve already been diagnosed with cancer, drinking alcohol could also affect your risk of developing a new cancer.
If you do choose to drink alcohol, limit your intake to no more than one to two drinks per day. A drink in this instance is equivalent to a 5 oz glass of wine, 12 oz beer, or a single shot (1.5 oz) of 80-proof hard liquor.
Cancer experts strongly recommend not drinking alcohol at all due to its potentially harmful effects on the body. Alcohol is known to increase your risk for several different types of cancer and cause kidney damage over time.
If you have kidney cancer, it’s best to talk with your doctor about moderate drinking. Your doctor can give you advice about whether it is safe to consume alcohol while undergoing cancer treatment.