Risks and causes

In the UK around 2,100 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 is a risk factor?

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 protective 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 40 and over the age of 75.

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:

  • have HIV (human immuno deficiency virus) or AIDS (acquired immuno deficiency syndrome)
  • were born with a rare medical syndrome that affects immunity
  • develop certain autoimmune conditions, 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. 

We don't know why there is an increased risk in people with autoimmune disease. It may be due to the medicines 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 autoimmune 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.

It's estimated that around 40 out of 100 cases (40%) of Hodgkin lymphoma in the UK are related to EBV infection.

But it’s important to remember that most people who have glandular fever will not develop cancer as a result.

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

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

Research has suggested there may be an increased risk of Hodgkin lymphoma for people who are obese (very overweight). 

Some studies have suggested an increased risk of Hodgkin lymphoma in people who smoke.

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: 
23 Sep 2020
Next review due: 
23 Sep 2023
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  • 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 issue you are interested in.

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