Can infection with EBV, HIV, hepatitis or parasites cause cancer?

  • Some infections increase the risk of cancer, including EBV, HIV, hepatitis B and C, and certain parasites. 

  • Speak to your doctor if you are concerned about your cancer risk from these infections.  

  • There are lots of ways you can lower your cancer risk. These include stopping smoking, keeping a healthy weight, cutting down on alcohol, and staying safe in the sun.  

On this page we cover some of the main infections linked to cancer: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B and C, and certain parasites. We have separate information on human papillomavirus (HPV)andH. pylori infections.  

If you have one of these infections it doesn’t mean that you will definitely develop cancer. 

Speak to your doctor if you are concerned about your cancer risk from an infection. Get advice for talking to your doctor on our webpage.

It’s important to remember a person’s risk of cancer depends on many different things. There are healthy changes you can make to lower your risk of cancer. These include not smoking, keeping a healthy weight, cutting down on alcohol and staying safe in the sun. 

 

EBV and cancer risk
 
 

What is EBV? 

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a type of herpes infection that can spread through saliva. EBV is very common – more than 9 in 10 people are infected worldwide.

Most people will get EBV as a child and will not experience any symptoms. If someone gets EBV at an older age, it can lead to glandular fever. This is sometimes called ‘mononucleosis’, ‘mono’ or ‘kissing disease’. Glandular fever can be very unpleasant, but it usually passes within a few weeks. You can talk to a pharmacist or doctor about how to ease symptoms from glandular fever. 

Once someone has EBV, they will have it for the rest of their life. There is no vaccine for EBV and it is difficult to prevent EBV infection as it is a common virus. Most people have EBV without knowing it and it does not cause them any problems.  
 

Does EBV cause cancer? 

Most EBV infections don’t cause any problems, but in rare cases an EBV infection can cause cancer. Less than 1 in 300 UK cancer cases are caused by EBV.  

EBV increases the risk of some cancer types, including: 

EBV may also increase the risk of stomach cancer. But more research is needed to say for certain. 

EBV-linked cancers are uncommon. In most people an EBV infection will not cause cancer. Research is ongoing into how EBV causes cancer in some cases and not others.  

 

HIV and cancer risk  
 

What is HIV? 

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that affects the immune system.  If untreated, HIV can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). This means the virus has severely damaged the immune system.

Although HIV cannot be cured, treatment with anti-retroviral therapy (ART) means most people living with HIV can lead a healthy life. ART can help keep HIV under control and help keep the immune system working.  

HIV is spread through blood and bodily fluids. But someone living with HIV who takes ART and has an undetectable virus level cannot pass on HIV. 

The NHS website has more information about HIV, including preventing infection, symptoms, and treatment.   

 

Does HIV cause cancer? 

HIV increases the risk of some types of cancer, including: 

There are also more cases of these cancer types in people living with HIV: 

People living with HIV who develop AIDS are at a higher risk of cancer than those who don’t develop AIDS. Anti-retroviral therapy (ART) can help prevent HIV infection progressing to AIDS.  

Living with HIV increases cancer risk because the virus affects the immune system. HIV can weaken the immune system so the body is less able to clear infections that can cause cancer.  For example, the human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8) which can cause Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Research is ongoing into other ways that HIV may affect the immune system and impact cancer risk. 
 

I’m living with HIV, how can I reduce my risk of cancer?  

There are ways to reduce the risk of cancer if you are living with HIV.

  • ART has been shown to reduce the risk of some types of cancer linked to HIV. Since ART has become commonly available, cases of certain cancers in people with HIV have gone down.  
     
  • Consider talking to your doctor, specialist, or HIV clinic about vaccinations, such as the HPV vaccine and hepatitis B vaccine. HPV and hepatitis B increase the risk of some types of cancer. Getting vaccinated can help protect against infection by these viruses.  
     
  • It's especially important to consider making healthy changes when living with HIV. Not smoking, keeping a healthy weight, staying safe in the sun, and cutting down on alcohol will help reduce your risk of cancer. 
     
  • If you are eligible for cancer screening, consider taking up your screening invites. There is more information on our screening for cancer webpage. 

Remember, spotting cancer early saves lives. Listen to your body and speak to a healthcare professional if you’ve noticed something’s not quite right for you.  

The charity aidsmap has additional information on HIV and cancer including cancer diagnosis and treatment for people living with HIV. 

 

Hepatitis B and C and cancer risk
 
 

What are hepatitis B and C? 

Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are viruses that are carried in the blood and can infect liver cells. These viruses can cause health problems such as liver damage, if they are not cleared by the body, or are left untreated.

It’s important to speak to your doctor for advice on testing if you think you might have hepatitis B or C.  

Both hepatitis B and C are spread through the blood and bodily fluids of an infected person. Hepatitis B and C are uncommon in the UK, but some people are at higher risk of infection. This includes people who work in healthcare, men who have sex with men, and people who inject drugs. 

There is an effective hepatitis B vaccination. It is available on the NHS for newborn babies, people living with HIV, and people at higher risk of hepatitis B infection. You can get the vaccine through your GP or sexual health clinic.  

The vaccine is also recommended for people travelling to countries where hepatitis B is common. Ask your GP or a private travel clinic about this.  

There is no vaccination for hepatitis C. The NHS website has more information about hepatitis B and hepatitis C, including preventing infection, symptoms, and treatment. 

 

Do hepatitis B and C cause cancer? 

Hepatitis B and C increase the risk of some types of cancer.  These hepatitis viruses cause less than 1% of all cancers in the UK. 

Long term infection with hepatitis B or C increases the risk of liver cancer. This is mainly because these viruses cause damage to the liver (cirrhosis).  

Smoking and drinking alcohol also cause liver cancer, and can increase the risk of liver cancer even more in people with hepatitis infection. Stopping smoking and cutting down on alcohol are important ways to lower your risk of cancer.  

Hepatitis C also increases the risk ofNon-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Hepatitis B may increase the risk of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and stomach cancer, but more research is needed to say for certain. 

The risk of cancer from hepatitis B and C is reduced if the virus is treated. Speak to your doctor if you think you might have a hepatitis infection. 

 

Parasites and cancer risk 
 

Can parasites cause cancer? 

Parasites are organisms that need to live on, or in, a human, animal or plant to survive.  

Some parasites can cause liver and bladder cancers in humans. But these parasites are very rare in the UK, and cause very few UK cancer cases.  

Talk to your doctor if you have been somewhere where these parasites are more common and you are experiencing symptoms, or other changes that are unusual for you. These parasites can be easily treated with medicine from the GP. 

Liver worms (Clonorchis sinensis and Opisthorchis viverrini) 

These two small liver worms can causebile duct cancer. They are most commonly found in Asia. They are not common the UK. Liver worms spread through contaminated water and food, particularly through raw contaminated fish. They may cause symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhoea.

Blood worm (Schistosoma haematobium) 

This blood worm can causebladder cancer. It is most commonly found in lakes and rivers in Africa, and also parts of South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia.  It is not found in the UK.

You can read more about this blood worm on the NHS website, including symptoms, treatment, and how to prevent infection. 

 

Brown et al. The fraction of cancers attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. BJC. 118: 1130-1141. 2018 

International Agency for Research on Cancer. Biological Agents. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (100B) 2012. 

National Health Service (NHS). HIV and AIDS - Causes. NHS Choices. 2017 

National Health Service (NHS). Hepatitis. NHS Choices. 2016 

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