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Risks and causes

Find out about the risk factors for Hodgkin lymphoma and how you can reduce your cancer risk.

In the UK around 1,950 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma each year. We don't know what causes most cases. But there are some factors that can increase your risk of developing it.

What a risk factor is

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

Having a risk factor does not necessarily mean that you will develop cancer. Also, not having any risk factors does not mean that you definitely won't get cancer.

Some factors lower your risk of cancer and are known as protection factors.

As Hodgkin lymphoma is rare, the risk of developing it is small even if you do have any risk factors.

Hodgkin lymphoma is slightly more common in males than females in the UK.

It can happen at any age. But it is most common between the ages of 20 to 24 and 75 to 79.

Anyone whose immune system isn't working properly is more likely to develop Hodgkin lymphoma. The immune system fights disease. You may have low immunity if you:

  • are taking medicines to stop organ rejection after a transplant
  • have HIV (human immuno deficiency virus) or AIDS (acquired immuno deficiency syndrome)
  • were born with a rare medical syndrome that affects immunity
  • develop an auto immune condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)

People with HIV or AIDS have a risk of Hodgkin lymphoma that is 11 times higher than the general population. People who have had an organ transplant have up to 4 times the risk of developing Hodgkin lymphoma than other people in the population.

We don't know why there is an increased risk in people with auto immune disease. It may be due to the drugs people have to take or due to the immune conditions themselves. It may also be due to common factors that we don't yet know about that can cause both the auto immune conditions and Hodgkin lymphoma.

People who have had non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in the past have an increased risk of Hodgkin lymphoma. This may be due to the treatment they had for the NHL.

Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is the virus that causes glandular fever (mononucleosis). Glandular fever is not a serious illness, although it can make people feel very unwell and may last a long time. People who have had glandular fever have an increased risk of Hodgkin lymphoma.

A study published in December 2011 estimated that around 4 in 10 cases (40%) of Hodgkin lymphoma in the UK are related to EBV infection.

First degree relatives of people with Hodgkin lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) or chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) have an increased risk of getting Hodgkin lymphoma themselves. A first degree relative is a parent, child, sister or brother.

We don't know whether this increase in risk is due to an inherited gene change or shared lifestyle factors. 

Research has shown an increased risk of Hodgkin lymphoma for people who are very overweight (obese). One study showed the risk may be higher in women than men. 

Several studies, including the large European study called EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) and the Million women study have shown an increase in Hodgkin lymphoma risk in people who smoke.

In 2012 an overview of studies showed a lower risk of Hodgkin lymphoma in drinkers, but not in drinkers who smoked. However, it is important to remember that alcohol can increase the risk of some other types of cancer.

A few studies show that Hodgkin lymphoma risk is lower in groups of people who are exposed to infections early. If you live in crowded conditions, have brothers and sisters, or go to nursery, you are more likely to pick up common childhood infections early in life rather than later.

Researchers think that getting infections early may help us to develop a healthy immune system and this could be what lowers the risk of Hodgkin lymphoma.

Several studies over the years have looked into hair dyes and risk of lymphomas. So far there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that hair dye increases your risk of developing Hodgkin lymphoma. 

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.

Reducing your risk

There are ways you can reduce your risk of cancer.

For detailed information on Hodgkin lymphoma risks and causes

Last reviewed: 
06 Jan 2015
  • Incidence of cancers in people with HIV/AIDS compared with immunosuppressed transplant recipients: a meta-analysis
    AE Grulich, MT van Leeuwen, MO Falster and others
    Lancet, 2007, Volume 370, Issue 9581

  • Autoimmunity and susceptibility to Hodgkin lymphoma: a population-based case-control study in Scandinavia
    O Landgren, EA Engels, RM Pfeiffer and others
    Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2006, Volume 98, Issue 18

  • Body size and risk of Hodgkin's lymphoma by age and gender: a population-based case-control study in Connecticut and Massachusetts
    Q Li, ET Chang, BA Bassig and others
    Cancer Causes and Control, 2013, Volume 24, Issue 2

  • Second primary cancers among 109 000 cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
    P Brennan, G Scélo, K Hemminki and others
    British Journal of Cancer, 2005, Volume 93, Issue 1

  • Cancers attributable to infection in the UK in 2010
    DM Parkin
    British Journal of Cancer, 2011, Volume 105 (Supplement 2)

  • Familial aggregation of Hodgkin lymphoma and related tumors
    LR Goldin, RM Pfeiffer, G Gridley and others
    2004, Volume 100, Issue 9

  • Cigarette smoking and risk of lymphoma in adults: a comprehensive meta analysis on Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin disease
    TN Sergentanis, P Kanavidis, T Michelakos and others
    European Journal of Cancer Prevention, 2013, Volume 22, Issue 2

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