Vaginal Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing vaginal cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

What are the risk factors for vaginal 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 a person's risk of developing vaginal cancer:

  • Age. Squamous cell carcinoma most often occurs between the ages of 50 and 70 years old. The average age of people diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma is 67 years old, and about 80% are older than 50. 

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research shows that infection with HPV is a risk factor for vaginal cancer. Sexual activity with someone who has HPV is the most common way someone gets HPV. There are different types of HPV, called strains. Research links some HPV strains more strongly with certain types of cancers. HPV vaccines can prevent people from developing certain cancers. Learn more about HPV and cancer.

  • Smoking. Smoking tobacco may increase the risk of developing vaginal cancer.

  • Cervical cancer. A previous diagnosis of cervical cancer or a cervical precancerous condition can increase the risk of vaginal cancer.

  • Previous radiation therapy. Previous radiation therapy in the vaginal area have an increased risk of vaginal cancer.

  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES). People whose mothers took this drug during their pregnancy between the late 1940s and 1971 have an increased risk of clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina. The average age of diagnosis is 19. Because most people whose mothers who took DES are now between 50 and 70 years old, the number of cases has decreased substantially. Now, this is a rare tumor. The other long-term risks of DES exposure are not known.

Are there ways to prevent vaginal cancer?

The HPV vaccine Gardasil is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for prevention of vaginal cancer. It is also approved to prevent vaginal precancer (see Introduction). Gardasil helps prevent infection from the most common types, called strains, of HPV. The vaccine is given as 2 shots spread 6 months apart for people 9 to 14 years old. For people 15 years and older, 3 shots are recommended.

Regular gynecologic examinations can help detect cancer or precancerous conditions at an early stage in people with risk factors for vaginal cancer. During a gynecologic exam, the doctor will take a family medical history and perform a general physical examination of the pelvis, during which the doctor will feel the uterus, vagina, cervix, and other reproductive organs to check for any unusual changes.

In addition, research has shown that certain actions can help prevent HPV and vaginal cancer:

  • Delaying first sexual intercourse until the late teens or older

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with multiple partners

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with someone who has had many partners

  • Practicing safe sex, including condom use, although condoms cannot fully protect against HPV

  • Having regular Pap tests (see Diagnosis) to find and treat precancerous conditions

  • Not starting to smoke

  • Quitting smoking, if you currently smoke

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause vaginal cancer, including ways to prevent it. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent vaginal cancer, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your health care team for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

Learn more about cancer prevention and healthy living.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what changes or medical problems vaginal cancer can cause. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.