Causes and risk factors of vaginal cancer

Certain risk factors may increase the risk of developing vaginal cancer. The main risk factor for vaginal cancer is infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV).

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.

What are the causes of vaginal cancer


Vaginal cancer is more common over the age of 60.

HPV (human papilloma virus)

The main risk factor for vaginal cancer is infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). This risk may be increased in people with HPV who smoke. 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, there is a chance it may eventually develop into vaginal cancer in some people.

Cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix

People who have had cervical cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix (CIN) 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. This risk may be higher in people who smoke. But most people who have had cervical cancer or CIN will never develop vaginal cancer.

Radiotherapy to the pelvis

People 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. The risk is not very high, but you should have yearly check-ups to look for early signs of CCA.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our vaginal cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    Adams T, Cuello M. Cancer of the Vagina: FIGO cancer report 2018. International journal of gynaecology and obstetrics. p14-21.

    Royal College of Radiotherapy: Clinical Oncology. Radiotherapy dose fractionation, third edition. 2019.

  • 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.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

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.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 September 2021
Next review: 01 September 2024
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.