Alcohol is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a human carcinogen and its consumption has been associated to an increased risk of liver, breast, colorectum, and upper aerodigestive tract (UADT) cancers. Its mechanisms of carcinogenicity remain unclear and various hypotheses have been formulated depending on the target organ considered. In the case of UADT cancers, alcohol’s major metabolite acetaldehyde seems to play a crucial role. Acetaldehyde reacts with DNA inducing modifications, which, if not repaired, can result in mutations and lead to cancer development. Despite alcohol being mainly metabolized in the liver, several studies performed in humans found higher levels of acetaldehyde in saliva compared to those found in blood immediately after alcohol consumption. These results suggest that alcohol-derived acetaldehyde exposure may occur in the oral cavity independently from liver metabolism. This hypothesis is supported by our recent results showing the presence of acetaldehyde-related DNA modifications in oral cells of monkeys and humans exposed to alcohol, overall suggesting that the alcohol metabolism in the oral cavity is an independent cancer risk factor. This review article will focus on illustrating the factors modulating alcohol-derived acetaldehyde exposure and effects in the oral cavity.
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