Causes and risk factors of cervical cancer

The main risk factor for cervical cancer is an infection called the human papilloma virus (HPV). Some other factors may also make cervical cancer more likely to develop.

What are risk factors?

Certain things called risk factors may increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get cancer. And not having a risk factor does not mean that you will not get it.

HPV and cervical cancer

The main risk factor for cervical cancer is an infection called the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of this virus. Some types of HPV can affect the cervix. The types that cause abnormal cell changes in the cervix are called high-risk HPV.

Usually, the body’s immune system gets rid of the infection naturally. There are no symptoms and often the virus does not cause damage. Most people will never know they had it.

In some people, the immune system does not get rid of the infection and the virus stays in the body for longer. We do not know exactly why this is. If the cervix is affected by HPV for a long time, the virus can cause damage that may eventually cause cancer.

HPV is very common and most people are infected with it at some point. It can affect all sexual orientations and anyone who has ever been sexually active. This includes people in a long-term relationship with one partner. HPV may still affect you even if you have not been sexually active for some years.

The virus can live on the skin around the whole genital area. It passes easily from person to person during any type of sexual contact, including skin-to-skin genital contact, or sharing sex toys. Using a condom or other barrier contraception may reduce your risk of HPV infection, but it does not offer complete protection.

Cervical cancer itself is not infectious. You cannot catch cancer or pass it on to other people.

The NHS offers a vaccine to children between the ages of 11 and 13 to prevent HPV.

If you are worried about cervical cancer and would like to talk to someone, we're here. You can:

A weak immune system

Your immune system helps protect your body from infection and illness. A weak immune system is less likely to get rid of infections like HPV. Your immune system can be weakened by:


Contraceptive pill

If you take the contraceptive pill for more than five years, this may increase your risk of developing cervical cancer. Usually, the benefits of taking the pill outweigh the risks.

Regular cervical screening tests can reduce your risk by finding and treating abnormal changes before cancer develops.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Nick Reed, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

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We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

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We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

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Date reviewed

Reviewed: 30 April 2021
Next review: 30 April 2024

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.