Cervical Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

The cause of cervical cancer is unknown. Infection with two types of human papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted sexually, is strongly associated with cervical and vulvar cancer and is the primary risk factor. Evidence of HPV is found in nearly 80 percent of cervical carcinomas. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection reduces the immune system's ability to fight infection (including HPV infection) and increases the likelihood that precancerous cells will progress to cancer.

Sexual activity that increases the risk for infection with HPV and HIV and for cervical cancer includes the following:

  • Having multiple sexual partners or having sex with a promiscuous partner
  • History of sexually transmitted disease (STD)
  • Sexual intercourse at a young age

In June of 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a cervical cancer vaccine for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26. This vaccine (Gardasil) has been shown to protect against the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Women who smoke cigarettes are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer. Chemicals in cigarette smoke may increase the risk by damaging cervical cells.

Other risk factors include age (the condition is rare in women younger than age 15) and race (invasive cancer rates are higher in African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans).

In women younger than 30 years of age, regular screening using a test called a Pap smear effectively lowers the risk for developing invasive cervical cancer. This test is used to detect precancerous changes in cervical cells. Women who do not receive regular Pap smears are at increased risk for cervical cancer.

Women who are over the age of 30 have a higher risk for cervical cancer caused by persistent HPV infection. Therefore, cervical cancer screening recommendations in these women also include an HPV test (called the digene HPV test), in addition to regular Pap tests.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015