Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting cervical cancer is a risk factor.

HPV, which is spread by sexual contact, is the cause of almost all cases of cervical cancer. HPV may cause the cells in the cervix to change. If abnormal cells are not found and treated, they may become cancer. HPV causes almost all cervical cancers, as well as many vaginal and vulvar cancers.

As many as 75 percent of men and women who have had sex have HPV. Usually the body’s immune system handles the virus, and most people never know they have it. Many women want to know how often untreated HPV leads to cervical cancer. The good news is most women with HPV will not get polyps or cervical cancer, however, you should be aware of the risk and have regular Pap tests.

Other cervical cancer high risk factors include:

  • Age: The risk of cervical cancer increases with age. It is found most often in women over the age of 40. However, younger women often have precancerous lesions that require treatment to prevent cancer.
  • Smoking: Cigarette smoke contains chemicals that damage the body's cells. It increases the risk of precancerous changes in the cervix, such as polyps, especially in women with HPV. Read more about MD Anderson’s smoking cessation clinical trials.
  • Sexual behavior: Certain types of sexual activity may increase the risk of getting HPV infection. These include:
    • Multiple sexual partners
    • High-risk male partners
    • First intercourse at an early age
    • Not using condoms during sex
  • Lack of regular Pap tests
  • Having a sexually transmitted disease (STD), including chlamydia

Lower risk factors include:

  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure before birth: This drug was used between 1940 and 1971 to help women not have miscarriages.
  • Women whose mothers took DES during pregnancy have a high risk of vaginal and cervical cancers.
  • HIV infection
  • Weakened immune system: Having an organ transplant or taking steroids raise your risk
  • Being overweight or not eating a healthy diet

Not everyone with risk factors gets cervical cancer. However, if you have risk factors it’s a good idea to discuss them with your health care provider.