Risk factors for cervical cancer

HPV

The main risk factor for cervical cancer is an infection called the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are over 100 types of this virus. Some types can affect the cervix and cause the abnormal cell changes that may develop into cervical cancer.

HPV is very common and most people are infected with it at some point. It can be passed on through any type of sexual contact with a man or a woman. It is often shared between sexual partners. Using a condom or other barrier contraception may reduce the risk of infection with HPV, but it does not offer complete protection.

Usually, the body’s immune system gets rid of the virus 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 clear the infection and the virus stays in the body for longer. We do not know exactly why this is. If the virus affects the cervix for longer, it can start to cause damage that may eventually cause cancer.

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

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

Other risk factors

Some other factors may make cervical cancer more likely to develop.

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:

  • smoking
  • not eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • some conditions, such as HIV.

Smoking

As well as making the immune system weaker, the chemicals in cigarette smoke may also cause cervical cancer.

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.

Back to Potential causes of cancer

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Human papilloma virus (or HPV) is a common infection. Some types of HPV can increase the risk of developing cancer.