Risks and causes of bladder cancer

Smoking tobacco is the biggest cause of bladder cancer in the UK. There are some other risk factors that can increase your risk of developing bladder cancer.

Anything that can increase your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Different cancers have different risk factors. Having one or more of these risk factors doesn't mean you will definitely get that cancer.

Risk factors

Risk factors for bladder cancer include:


Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of bladder cancer. Around half of all bladder cancers are caused by smoking. 

Your risk of getting bladder cancer if you smoke is up to 4 times that of someone who has never smoked. People with the highest risk are those who:

  • smoke heavily
  • started smoking at a young age
  • have smoked for a long time

Smoking other types of tobacco products like cigars and pipes also increases your risk.

How smoking may increase your risk

Chemicals in the smoke get into the bloodstream. They are then filtered out of the blood by the kidneys and end up in the urine. When the urine is stored in the bladder, these chemicals are in contact with the bladder lining.

Chemicals called arylamines are known to cause bladder cancer. Arylamines in cigarette smoke may be the cause of the increased risk.

Chemicals at work

If you have been diagnosed with bladder cancer, it's worth talking to your urologist or cancer doctor to find out if it could be linked to chemicals in your workplace. 

Certain types of jobs can carry higher risk than others, depending on the exposures people have in their jobs. But nowadays, if people are exposed to dangerous chemicals there are regulations to keep workers’ exposure within safety limits.


This is a group of chemicals known to cause bladder cancer. Some of these chemicals have been banned in the UK for over 50 years. But you may have been exposed to them if you work in industries that produce dyes, rubber, textiles, chemicals or plastics. It can take around 30 years or more for a bladder cancer to develop.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)

These are a group of chemicals that might increase the risk of bladder cancer. You may have been exposed to them if you have worked in:

  • industries where people handle carbon or crude oil, or substances made from them
  • any industry involving combustion, such as smelting

Employers have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their employees under law. If you have a diagnosis of bladder cancer and know that you have been exposed to any of these chemicals at work, you may be able to claim an allowance from the government. This is called an Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit from the Department for Work and Pensions. Discuss this with your doctor.

Infections and long lasting bladder irritation

Research shows that having many bladder infections or long lasting infections can increase your risk of developing bladder cancer. It's not really known how or why this happens.

Some medical conditions that can increase the number and length of infections include: 

  • gonorrhoea
  • bladder stones

Urinary catheters 

Research has also found that having a catheter in for a long time increases your risk of bladder cancer compared with the general population. They found that your risk increases if you're under the age of 60 years old. 

Having had bladder cancer before

Your risk of developing another cancer anywhere in the urinary tract is higher if you have previously been treated for bladder cancer. This includes:

  • any part of your bladder that is still there after your treatment
  • the tubes that connect the kidney and the bladder (the ureters) including the part within the kidney (the renal pelvis)
  • the tube leading from the bladder to the outside of the body (urethra)

Having had transitional cell cancer of other parts of the urinary tract (such as the ureters, urethra or renal pelvis) also increases your risk of getting bladder cancer.

Other cancers have been linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer. These include head and neck cancers, lung cancer and kidney cancer. Cancer treatment such as radiotherapy may increase your risk or it may be that these cancers share risk factors with bladder cancer.

You have regular check ups after cancer treatment so that your specialist can find any new cancer at its earliest stage.

Other medical conditions

Systemic sclerosis

Women who have systemic sclerosis have a higher risk of getting bladder cancer than the general public. This may be due to a drug called cyclophosphamide, which is used to treat the condition.

Kidney transplant

People who have had a kidney transplant have a higher risk of getting bladder cancer than the general public.

Family history

In a few families, bladder cancer is associated with an inherited faulty gene. But this is very rare. This may be more likely if their cancer was diagnosed at a young age. 

Family patterns are influenced by behaviour too. Often cancers may seem to run in families because the family members share behaviours such as smoking, which increase the risk of getting bladder cancer. 

Overall, you are statistically more at risk if you have a first degree relative (a parent, child, sister or brother) with bladder cancer. But this is a statistical risk. It only tells you about risk in a whole population, not your individual risk as a person.

 A study from Italy showed that this risk is even greater if your first degree relative is under the age of 65 years old. 

Being overweight

Some research has shown that you may be at an increased risk of getting bladder cancer if you're overweight or obese. But more research is needed and it's unclear how much of an increased risk there may be. 

Other possible causes

There are often stories about potential causes in the media. 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.

More information on risk factors for bladder cancer

We have more detailed information for health professionals about bladder cancer risks and causes.

Last reviewed: 
13 Aug 2019
  • The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015
    K F Brown and others
    British Journal of Cancer, 2018. Volume 118, Pages 1130 – 1141

  • Bladder cancer statistics
    Cancer Research UK, Accessed July 2018

  • Quantified relations between exposure to tobacco smoking and bladder cancer risk: a meta – analysis of 89 observational studies
    F H M Van Osch and others
    International Journal of Epidemiology, 2016. Volume 45, Issue 3, Pages 857 – 870

  • Investigation of potential exposure to carcinogens and respiratory sensitisers during thermal processing of plastics
    Health and Safety Laboratory
    Health and Safety Executive, 2010

  • Chronic Infections of the Urinary Tract and Bladder Cancer Risk: a systemic review
    O Anderson-Otunu
    Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, 2016. Volume 17, Pages 3805 – 3807

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in. 

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