What are risk factors?

Certain things called risk factors may increase the risk of developing vaginal 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.

Like other cancers, vaginal cancer is not infectious. You cannot catch it or pass it on to other people.


Vaginal cancer is more common in women over the age of 60.

HPV (human papilloma virus)

The main risk factor for vaginal cancer is infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). But most people who get HPV will not get vaginal cancer.

A weakened immune system

Your immune system helps protect your body from infection and illness. If the immune system is not working well, it is less likely to get rid of infections like HPV.

Vaginal intra-epithelial neoplasia (VAIN)

VAIN is the name for pre-cancerous changes in cells lining the vagina. It can develop if HPV remains in the vagina for a long time.

If VAIN is not treated, it may develop into vaginal cancer in a small number of women.

Cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix

Women who have had cervical cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix (CIN) at least 5 years ago have an increased risk of developing vaginal cancer. This is likely to be related to HPV, which is the main cause of cervical cancer and CIN. But most women who have had cervical cancer or CIN will never develop vaginal cancer.

Radiotherapy to the pelvis

Women who have had radiotherapy to the pelvis may have a very slightly increased risk of vaginal cancer.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES)

This is a risk factor for a very rare type of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma (CCA). Your risk is increased if your mother was prescribed the drug DES when she was pregnant with you. DES has not been used for a long time. Doctors prescribed it to some pregnant women between 1940 and 1970. Most women whose mothers took this drug will never develop vaginal cancer. But daughters of women who took DES should have yearly check-ups to detect early signs of CCA.