Vulvar Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2021

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

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 vulvar cancer:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research indicates that infection with HPV is a risk factor for vulvar cancer. HPV may be the cause for about one-third to two-thirds of all vulvar cancers. Sexual activity with someone who has HPV is the most common way for someone to get HPV. There are different types of HPV, called strains. Research links some HPV strains more strongly with certain types of cancers. Many types of cancer caused by HPV are associated with precancerous conditions, which are changes in cells that may, but do not always, become cancer. HPV vaccines can prevent people from developing certain cancers. Learn more about HPV and cancer.

  • Smoking. Smoking tobacco may increase a person’s risk of developing vulvar cancer.

  • Age. Most women diagnosed with vulvar cancer are older than 50. Only a small percentage of invasive vulvar cancer occurs in people younger than 40.

  • Immune system deficiency. People with lowered immune systems have a higher risk of developing vulvar cancer. A lowered immune system can be caused by immune suppression from corticosteroid medications, organ transplantation, treatment for other types of cancer, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). When a person has a lowered immune system, their body is more likely to develop infections, including an HPV infection.

  • Precancerous conditions and select other primary cancers. Precancerous conditions of the vulva can increase a person’s risk of developing vulvar cancer. These include VIN (see Introduction), Paget’s disease, cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, or melanoma elsewhere on the body.

  • Lichen sclerosus. This condition affects the vulvar skin, making it thin and itchy. About 4% of women with lichen sclerosus develop vulvar cancer.

Prevention and early detection

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

To help detect vulvar cancer, the doctor will take a family medical history, perform a general physical examination, and perform a gynecologic exam of the pelvis, during which the doctor will look at the vulva and feel the uterus, vagina, cervix, and other reproductive organs to check for any unusual changes. Regular pelvic examinations can help find cancer or precancerous conditions at an early stage.

In addition, research has shown that certain factors can help prevent vulvar 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. However, condoms cannot fully protect against HPV. Abstaining from sexual intercourse is the only full protection against HPV.

  • Having regular gynecologic examinations to find and treat precancerous conditions

  • Quitting tobacco use for people who smoke

The HPV vaccine Gardasil is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for prevention of vulvar cancer. Although this vaccine protects against certain strains of the virus, the vaccine does not protect people who are already infected with HPV. Learn more about the HPV vaccine and talk with your doctor for more information.

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