Cervical Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Cervical cancer forms when the cells lining the cervix begin to develop abnormally. With cervical cancer, the abnormal cells may appear to be precancerous, meaning they aren’t cancer yet but could become cancer if not removed. Understanding the causes and risk factors for cervical cancer can help you stay on track with cancer screenings. By identifying anything abnormal as early as possible, it’s easier to treat, resulting in better outcomes.

Causes of Cervical Cancer

Most all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a group of more than 200 related viruses, some of which are spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Sexually transmitted HPV types fall into two groups, low risk and high risk. Although there are about 14 high-risk HPV types, HPV16 and HPV18 are considered to be the two responsible for most HPV-related cancers. Learn more about HPV by visiting our blog post: What is HPV?

Very often, people will get HPV at some point and not realize it because it doesn’t always produce symptoms but causes cell mutation without being noticed.

HPV is not the only cause of cervical cancer. Many other factors put women at risk for cervical cancer — some that can be controlled and others that cannot. Knowing your risk factors and discussing them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors That Can Be Controlled

  • Sexual history. Many factors related to your sexual history can increase the risk of cervical cancer. Becoming sexually active at a young age (especially under age 18), having multiple sexual partners, and having one sexual partner who is considered high risk (has HPV infection or has many sexual partners) can increase the chances of exposure to HPV.
  • Smoking. Women who smoke are about twice as likely as those who don't smoke to get cervical cancer. In addition to potentially damaging the DNA of cervix cells, tobacco can weaken the immune system against fighting HPV infections and lead to other cancers.
  • Long-term use of oral contraceptives. Taking oral contraceptives (OCs) for a long time could increase the risk of cancer of the cervix. Talk to your doctor about whether the benefits of using oral contraceptives outweigh the potential risks.
  • Giving birth to many children. Among women who are infected with HPV, those who have had seven or more full-term pregnancies have an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors That Cannot Be Controlled

  • 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 regular cervical cancer screenings, including a Pap test and/or an HPV test.
  • Having a weakened immune system. People with immune system deficiencies may be more at risk of developing an HPV infection and cervical cancer. Corticosteroid medications, organ transplantation, and treatments for other types of cancer can cause immune suppression. It may also result from certain diseases such as AIDS or lymphoma.
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES). Being exposed to the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) while in the mother's womb can increase the risk of developing a rare type of cancer of the cervix. DES was given to prevent miscarriage from about 1940 to 1970. 

Ways to Lower The Risk of Developing Cervical Cancer

While there is no proven way to prevent cervical cancer completely, there are steps you can take to help lower your cervical cancer risk. These include: 

  • Getting regular screenings. Cervical cancer can often be prevented by having regular screenings with Pap tests to find any precancerous cells and treat them. A Pap test is typically done in a doctor’s office during an annual pelvic exam. They take a sample of cells from the cervix and observe them under a microscope to look for changes in the cells or abnormalities.
  • Getting tested for HPV. During the same visit as your Pap test, the gynecologist can also perform an HPV test. If the test result is positive, it doesn’t mean you’re definitely going to develop cervical cancer. But your doctor may want to monitor you more closely than patients who are at a lower risk level.
  • Getting an HPV vaccine. Vaccines that protect against HPV infection can reduce the risk of cervical cancer. These vaccines do not protect women who are already infected with HPV.
  • Using barrier protection during sexual activity. Some methods to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) also decrease the risk of an HPV infection. Using a barrier method of birth control, such as a condom, helps protect against HPV infection.
  • Quit smoking. Try to stop smoking as those who smoke are more likely to develop precancerous cells. If you struggle to do it on your own, talk with your doctor about smoking cessation programs that could help. 

Whenever possible, do what you can to lower your risk of developing cervical cancer and any other types of cancer. Keeping up with regular screenings, including a Pap test and HPV test, is an essential part of detecting cervical cancer early when it’s more treatable. It’s important not to skip screenings, especially for patients who are at high risk of developing any type of gynecologic cancer.

If there are any concerning changes you are experiencing, such as abnormal bleeding, increased vaginal discharge, or pain during sexual intercourse, please talk with your doctor. He or she will ask questions regarding your symptoms and might run Pap or HPV tests in order to help figure out the cause of the problem and determine if it is a cervical cancer diagnosis. Be honest about your personal activities when asked by the doctor so they can have all the information necessary for a personalized screening and/or treatment plan.

Learn more about how oncologists detect and diagnose cervical cancer.