Can infections like EBV & HIV cause cancer?

  • Some infections increase the risk of cancer, including EBV, HIV, hepatitis, and certain parasites
     
  • In the UK, these infections are rare and cause very few cancer cases
     
  • There are lots of other things you can do to reduce your cancer risk, including stopping smoking

On this page we cover some of the key infections linked to cancer: EBV, HIV, hepatitis, and certain parasites. We have separate pages with information on HPV and H. pylori infections.  

There are other infections that can cause cancer, but these don’t have a large impact in the UK.

 

Does EBV cause cancer?

The Epstein Barr virus (EBV) increases the risk of some cancer types. But, for most people that have the virus, it will not cause them any problems.

EBV is linked to Hodgkin lymphoma , Burkitt lymphoma (a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma) and nasopharyngeal cancers.

It’s not possible to predict who will develop EBV-linked cancer and who won’t. But there are other important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer, such as not smoking, keeping a healthy weight and cutting down on alcohol.

 

What is EBV?

The 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 children and have it for the rest of their life. It doesn’t normally cause any symptoms or problems at all. But, in rare cases the infection will go on to cause cancer. Less than 1 in 300 UK cancer cases are caused by EBV.

If people pick up EBV when they are older, they can get glandular fever (sometimes called ‘mono’ or ‘kissing disease’). Glandular fever can be very unpleasant, but it usually passes within a few weeks. Glandular fever itself doesn’t cause cancer. It’s the EBV infection that increases cancer risk.

 

Does HIV cause cancer?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that affects the immune system, so the body is less able to get rid of other infections that can cause cancer. HIV increases the risk of Kaposi’s sarcoma, lymphoma, eye cancer, cervical cancer and anal cancer.

Anti-retroviral therapy (ART) can help keep HIV under control and reduce the risk of developing HIV-linked cancer.

People with HIV who develop acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) are at higher risk of cancer than those who don’t develop AIDS.

 

What is HIV?

HIV is a virus that can lead to AIDS. This is what happens when the HIV virus damages your immune system. Not everyone with HIV goes on to develop AIDS, but everyone who has AIDS has HIV.

You can’t catch AIDS from another person, but the HIV virus can spread from one person to another. This can happen by sharing needles, or through unprotected sexual contact with another person that has HIV. The NHS has more information on how HIV can be transmitted.

 

How can I reduce my risk of HIV-linked cancers?

The best way to avoid HIV-linked cancers is to avoid HIV infection. But if you do have an HIV infection, anti-retroviral therapy (ART) can reduce both the effects of the infection and the risk of HIV-linked cancer. Since ART became available, cases of cancers linked to HIV have gone down.

Whether you are on ART or not, it’s really important to listen to your body and speak to a health professional if something’s not quite right. Spotting cancer at an early stage can make a real difference.

And remember, around 4 in 10 cancers in the UK could be prevented. Things like stopping smoking, cutting down on alcohol and staying safe in the sun can have a big impact on your cancer risk.

Read more about how you can reduce your risk of cancer.

 

Can parasites cause cancer?

Parasites are a type of infection that need to live on, or in another animal to survive. Some parasites can cause liver and bladder cancer. In the UK, cancers caused by parasites are very rare.

Three types of parasite can cause cancer in humans. They are:

  • Two small liver worms (Clonorchis sinensis and Opisthorchis viverrini), which can cause bile duct cancer. They spread through contaminated food, particularly through undercooked fish.
     
  • A blood worm (Schistosoma haematobium), which can cause bladder cancer. This parasite lives in fresh water in subtropical and tropical regions and is spread through contaminated water. You can read more about this blood worm on the NHS website.
     

All three of these parasites are very rare in the UK, and cause very few UK cancer cases. But if you have been infected, they can be easily treated with a short course of medicine.

If you have travelled or lived somewhere where these parasites are more common and you’re concerned you may have been exposed, talk to your GP.

 

Does hepatitis cause cancer?

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) can cause liver cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Hepatitis causes less than 1% of all cancers in the UK.

But getting cancer is less likely if the virus is treated. 

 

What is hepatitis?

HBV and HCV are carried in the blood and can infect liver cells.

Most HBV infections can be cleared by the immune system and don’t cause any major harm. But in some cases, the body can’t get rid of the HBV infection, leading to health problems.

Most HCV infections can’t be cleared.

Hepatitis is uncommon in the UK, but some people are at a higher risk of getting it. This includes people that work in healthcare, men who have sex with men, close family of someone who has the virus, and people who inject drugs.

To stop hepatitis spreading, avoid sharing needles, razors and toothbrushes. It’s also important to avoid getting tattoos or piercings at places that are unlicenced. And to use barrier protection, like a condom, when having sex.

 

Who can get the hepatitis vaccine?

A vaccine that protects against HBV is freely available on the NHS for newborn babies and people at higher risk of HBV. Visit your GP or a sexual health clinic to ask if you could get the vaccine.

HBV vaccination is also recommended for people travelling to countries where HBV is common. Ask your GP or a travel clinic – you will probably need to pay to get the HBV vaccine for travel.

There is no vaccine available to protect from HCV at the moment.

The NHS website has more information about hepatitis.

 

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;(accessed Sep 2021).

National Health Service (NHS). Hepatitis. NHS Choices. 2016;(accessed Sep 2021).

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