Cervical Cancer: Risk Factors

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2023

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing cervical cancer. You will also learn about some of the things a person can do to reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases a person's chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors may raise the risk of developing cervical cancer:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is HPV. HPV is a common infection. Most infections occur after people become sexually active, and most people clear the virus without problems. There are over 100 different types of HPV. Not all of them are linked to cancer. The HPV types, or strains, that are most frequently associated with cervical cancer are HPV16 and HPV18. Starting to have sex at an earlier age or having multiple sexual partners puts a person at higher risk of being infected with high-risk HPV types. HPV vaccines can prevent people from developing certain cancers, including cervical cancer. Learn more about HPV and cancer.

  • Immune system deficiency. People with a lowered immune system have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. A lowered immune system can be caused by immune suppression from corticosteroid medications, organ transplantation, treatments for other types of cancer, or from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). When a person has HIV, their immune system is less able to fight off early cancer.

  • Herpes. People who have genital herpes have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

  • Smoking. People who smoke tobacco are about twice as likely to develop cervical cancer compared with people who do not smoke.

  • Age. People younger than 20 years old rarely develop cervical cancer. The risk goes up between the late teens and mid-30s. People past this age group remain at risk and need to have regular cervical cancer screenings, which include a Pap test and/or an HPV test.

  • Socioeconomic factors. Cervical cancer is more common among groups of people who are less likely to have access to screening for cervical cancer. Those populations are more likely to include Black people, Hispanic people, American Indian people, and people from low-income households.

  • Oral contraceptives. Some research studies suggest that oral contraceptives, which are birth control pills, may be associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer and may be associated with higher-risk sexual behavior. However, more research is needed to understand how oral contraceptive use and the development of cervical cancer are connected.

  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES). People whose mothers were given this drug during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage have an increased risk of developing a rare type of cancer of the cervix or vagina. DES was given for this purpose from about 1940 to 1970. People exposed to DES should have an annual pelvic examination that includes a cervical Pap test as well as a 4-quadrant Pap test, in which samples of cells are taken from all sides of the vagina to check for abnormal cells.

Are there ways to prevent cervical cancer?

Research continues to look into what factors cause cervical cancer, including ways to prevent it and what people can do to lower their personal risk. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent this disease, there may be steps you can take to lower your cancer risk.

Cervical cancer can often be prevented by having regular screenings with Pap tests and HPV tests to find any precancers and treat them. It can also be prevented by receiving the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccine Gardasil is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for prevention of cervical cancer caused by HPV (see Risk Factors) for people between ages 9 and 45. Gardasil 9 is available in the United States for preventing infection from HPV16, HPV18, and 5 other types of HPV linked with cancer. There were 2 other vaccines previously available in the United States: Cervarix and the original Gardasil. However, because of newer vaccines becoming available, these 2 are no longer available in the United States. However, these vaccines may still be in use outside of the United States.

To help prevent cervical cancer, HPV vaccination is recommended for all adolescents as part of their routine vaccines. It may be given starting at age 9. Talk with your health care provider about the appropriate schedule for vaccination as it may vary based on many factors, including age, sex, and vaccine availability. Learn more about HPV vaccination and the American Society of Clinical Oncology's (ASCO's) recommendations for preventing cervical cancer.

Additional actions people can take to help prevent cervical cancer include:

  • Delaying first sexual intercourse until the late teens or older

  • Limiting the number of sexual partners

  • Practicing safer sex by using condoms and dental dams

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with people who have had many sexual partners

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with people who are infected with genital warts or who show other symptoms

  • Quitting smoking

Talk with your health care team if you have concerns about your personal risk of developing cervical cancer.

Learn more about cancer prevention and healthy living.

The next section in this guide is Screening. It explains how tests may find precancer and cancer in the cervix before signs and symptoms appear. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.