Cervical Cancer: Risk Factors

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. Risk factors for a certain type of cancer might include smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer.

Things you should know about risk factors for cancer:

Risk factors can increase a person's risk, but they do not necessarily cause the disease.

  • Some people with 1 or more risk factors never develop cancer. Other people can develop cancer and have no risk factors.

  • Some risk factors are very well known. But there is ongoing research about risk factors for many types of cancer.

Some risk factors, such as family history, may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change. Knowing the risk factors can help you make choices that might lower your risk. For example, if an unhealthy diet is a risk factor, you may choose to eat healthy foods. If excess weight is a risk factor, your healthcare provider may check your weight or help you lose weight.

Photo of a woman holding a cigarette

Who is at risk for cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is only found in women. Most cases are found in women younger than 50. It's rare in women younger than 20.

Risk factors for cervical cancer include:

  • HPV infection. HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer. An HPV infection is usually harmless and temporary. Anyone man or woman who has had sex can get an HPV infection. Most people with HPV never know they’re infected because the virus tends to go away on its own. There are more than 150 types of this virus. Only about 13 types of HPV have been found to lead to cervical cancer if they don’t go away on their own. These include HPV 16, HPV 18, HPV 31, HPV 33, and HPV 45. HPV 16 and 18 cause about 70% of all cervical cancer. The only way to tell if you have a high-risk type of HPV is to be tested.

  • Sex at a young age or with multiple partners. Both of these put you at increased risk of cervical cancer. You get high-risk HPV by having sex with someone who has the virus. A person with HPV may not have symptoms. Many people have it and don't know it. The only sure way to protect yourself is to not have sex, or to have sex only with a partner you know doesn’t have HPV. Condoms don’t protect you from HPV. But condom use is still important. Condoms help protect against other sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV and Chlamydia. Chlamydia has been linked to an increase in the risk of cervical cancer.

  • Smoking. If you smoke, you are about twice as likely to get cervical cancer as women who do not smoke. Chemicals in cigarettes end up in your bloodstream and in the mucus in your cervix. Smoking also weakens the immune system, making you less able to fight HPV infections.

  • Infection with HIV, or a weak immune system. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. Women with HIV also have a weak immune system. If you have HIV, it’s harder to get rid of a high-risk HPV infection. This leads to a higher risk of cervical cancer. Taking medicines that weaken the immune system raises the risk of cervical cancer, too.

  • Use of oral birth control. Long-term use of birth control pills increases the risk of cervical cancer. Your risk may go down after you stop taking birth control pills.

  • 3 or more full-term pregnancies. Women who have 3 or more full-term pregnancies are at increased risk for cervical cancer. Researchers aren’t sure why.

  • Not getting regular Pap tests. Women who don’t get screened for cervical cancer with a Pap test as advised have a higher risk of cervical cancer. 

Other risk factors

Some other factors have also been linked to cervical cancer, including:

  • A personal history of cervical cancer. If you've had cervical cancer before, you have a higher chance of getting cervical cancer again.

  • Mother or sister with cervical cancer. Some studies show that having a mother or sister who has had cervical cancer increases your risk for the disease.

  • Past Chlamydia infection. You can become infected with these bacteria during sex. Some studies show a link between Chlamydia and cervical cancer.

  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables. This is especially the case if you don’t eat enough foods with carotene and vitamins A, C, and E. These foods can help lower your risk of cervical cancer.

  • Being overweight. Some studies have shown that women who are overweight have a greater chance of getting cervical cancer.

  • A mother who took the medicine Diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant with you. Between the years 1940 and 1971, doctors sometimes prescribed this medicine to women who had miscarriages. The majority of women whose mothers took DES don’t get cervical cancer. But you’re still at higher risk for cervical cancer if your mother took DES while pregnant with you.

  • Poverty or no healthcare insurance. Poor women tend to be at higher risk for cervical cancer. Health experts believe that this is because they often don’t have access to good healthcare and screenings and also may not be able to afford to eat a well-balanced diet. There are programs for low-cost or free screenings. Ask your local healthcare clinic about these programs.

What are your risk factors?

Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for cervical cancer and what you can do about them.