Decorative image

Risks and causes

Read about the causes of cervical cancer, including the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Find out what you can do to reduce your risk.

Cervical cancer is the 13th most common cancer in women within the UK.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Different cancers have different risk factors.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get cervical cancer. Many people who have them never get it and some people with no risk factors develop it.

Age

Cervical cancer is more common in younger women. More than half of the cervical cancer cases in the UK each year are diagnosed in women aged 45 or under.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection

The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a major cause of the main types of cervical cancer.

HPV is common. Most sexually active women come into contact with HPV during their lifetime. But for most the virus causes no harm and goes away on its own.

Types of HPV

There are over 100 different types of HPV. HPV is passed on through close skin to skin contact, usually during sex. 

Some types are called the wart virus or genital wart virus because they cause genital warts. The types of HPV that cause warts do not usually cause cell changes that develop into cancer.  

At least 12 types of HPV are considered high risk for cancer of the cervix. Two of these types (HPV 16 and HPV 18) cause about 7 out of 10 cancers of the cervix (70%).

You are more at risk of developing pre cancerous cervical cells or cervical cancer if you have persistent infections with high risk types of HPV.

Condoms

Practising safer sex through using condoms will reduce your risk of getting the HPV virus and passing it on. Using condoms won’t protect you completely. But they will reduce your risk of becoming infected with HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Circumcision

Women are less likely to get cervical cancer from men who have been circumcised. This might be because men who are circumcised are less likely to carry HPV infection.

Vaccines

There are now vaccines to prevent HPV infection. All girls aged 12 or 13 in the UK are routinely offered the HPV vaccine at school. These vaccines protect against the strains of HPV that are most likely to cause cervical cancer. But they don't protect against all strains. 

It will take some years before the introduction of the vaccine has a major effect on reducing the number of cases of cervical cancer. So it is still important to carry on with cervical cancer screening.

Cervical screening

Cervical screening is available for women between the ages 25 to 64. Cancer screening involves testing apparently healthy people for signs that could show that a cancer is starting to develop. 

Cervical screening is a way of preventing cancer by finding and treating early changes in the neck of the womb (cervix). These changes could lead to cancer if left untreated. 

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Having human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or AIDS increases the risk of developing cervical cancer. This risk might be reduced in women who are having treatment for their HIV.

Other sexually transmitted infections

The risk of cervical cancer might be increased in women who have other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) alongside HPV.

Women with both HPV and chlamydia (pronounced klah-mid-ee-ah) have a higher risk of cervical cancer. 

Smoking tobacco

Smoking tobacco increases your risk of getting cervical cancer. The risk increases with the more cigarettes you smoke a day and the younger your age when you start smoking. An estimated 7% of cervical cancers in the UK are linked to smoking.

Researchers have found cancer causing chemicals (benzyrene) from cigarette smoke in the cervical mucus of women who smoke. They think that these chemicals damage the cervix.

There are cells in the lining of the cervix called Langerhans cells that specifically help fight against disease. These cells do not work so well in smokers. The Langerhans cells are less able to fight off the virus and protect the cervical cells from the genetic changes that can lead to cancer.

It is never too late to stop smoking but the sooner you stop the better. 

Contraceptive pill

1 in every 10 cases of cervical cancer is linked to taking the contraceptive pill.

The risk of getting cervical cancer is up to double for women who have taken the pill over at least 5 years. The pill can also slightly increase the risk of breast cancer. But it is important to know that taking the pill can help reduce the risk against womb and ovarian cancers.

The increased risk of cervical cancer begins to drop as soon as you stop taking the pill. After 10 years the risk is the same as if you had never taken it.

Regular screening can pick up changes in the cervix before they develop into a cancer. Screening is very important for women taking the pill. 

How many children you have, and when

Women who have had children are at an increased risk of cervical cancer compared to those who haven't.

Having your first baby before the age of 17 also gives a higher risk, compared to women who had their first baby after the age of 25. The reasons for this are unclear. 

Family history

Your risk of cervical cancer is increased if you have a mother, sister or daughter who has cervical cancer. We don’t know whether this is linked to faulty genes. Or whether it is due to common shared factors like smoking.

Previous cancer

Cervical cancer risk is higher in survivors of vaginal and vulval, kidney, urinary tract, or skin cancers.

One of the reasons for this might be previous radiotherapy treatment. 

Social class

It has also been shown that women living in the poorest (most deprived) areas of the UK are more likely to develop cervical cancer than those living in more wealthy areas. 

Other possible causes

Stories about potential causes are often in the media and it isn’t always clear which ideas are supported by evidence. There might be things you have heard of that we haven’t included here. This is because either there is no evidence about them or it is less clear.

For detailed information on cervical cancer risks and causes

Reducing your risk

There are ways you can reduce your risk of cancer.

Last reviewed: 
23 Aug 2016
  • Cancers attributable to exposure to hormones in the UK in 2010
    DM Parkin
    Br J Cancer, 2011 Dec; 105 Suppl 2: S42-8

  • The fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in the UK in 2010
    DM Parkin, L Boyd and LC Walker
    Br J Cancer, 2011 Dec; 105 Suppl 2: S77-81

  • Associations between first and second primary cancers: a population-based study
    Nielsen SF, Nordestgaard BG and Bojesen SE
    CMAJ. 2012 Jan 10;184(1):E57-69

  • Cervical carcinoma and reproductive factors: Collaborative reanalysis of individual data on 16,563 women with cervical carcinoma and 33,542 women without cervical carcinoma from 25 epidemiological studies
    International Collaboration of Epidemiological Studies of Cervical Cancer
    Int J Cancer. 2006 Sep 1;119 (5):1108-24

  • Cervical carcinoma and sexual behavior: collaborative reanalysis of individual data on 15,461 women with cervical carcinoma and 29,164 women without cervical carcinoma from 21 epidemiological studies
    International Collaboration of Epidemiological Studies of Cervical Cancer
    Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev, 2009 Apr; 18(4): 1060-1069

  • Familial clustering of cancer at human papillomavirus-associated sites according to the Swedish Family-Cancer Database
    SK Hussain, J Sundquist and K Hemminki
    Int J Cancer, 2008 Apr; 122(8): 1873-1878

  • Male circumcision and genital human papillomavirus: a systematic review and meta-analysis
    G Albero, X Castellsaque, AR Giuliano and FX Bosch
    SexTransm Dis, 2012 Feb; 39(2): 104-113

  • Prospective seroepidemiologic study on the role of Human Papillomavirus and other infections in cervical carcinogenesis: evidence from the EPIC cohort
    Castellsagué X, Pawlita M, Roura E. and others
    See comment in PubMed Commons belowInt J Cancer. 2014 Jul 15;135(2):440-52

  • Risk of high-grade cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer in women with systemic inflammatory diseases: a population-based cohort study
    Kim SC, Glynn RJ, Giovannucci E and others
    Ann Rheum Dis. 2015 Jul;74(7):1360-7

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.