Several factors can increase a person’s risk of developing cervical cancer. Some risk factors, such as smoking, a person can control. However, there are others, such as age, that a person cannot control.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

Risk factors increase a person’s chances of developing a certain condition.

Cervical cancer has two types of risk factors, which include those a person cannot control, such as age and family history, and those a person can control, such as diet, engaging in safe sexual practices, and smoking.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean a person will automatically develop cervical cancer.

This article explores the potential risk factors of developing cervical cancer and how a person can lower their risk.

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According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), HPV refers to a group of over 200 related viruses. Some of those viruses spread through sexual contact with others.

Sexual activity can refer to vaginal, oral, or anal sex.

There are two categories of sexually transmitted HPV — high risk and low risk. Approximately 14 types of HPV are high risk. Of those, HPV16 and HPV18 make up most of the HPV-related cancers.

Nearly all sexually active people will contract a strain of HPV. About 50% of exposed people come in contact with a high risk variant.

Learn more about high risk HPV.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), many factors related to a person’s sexual history can increase their risk of HPV exposure and developing cervical cancer. These factors include:

  • having several sexual partners and not engaging in safe sexual activities with them
  • having a sexual partner who has HPV or has had multiple sexual partners
  • becoming sexually active before the age of 18

Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that affects a person’s reproductive organs. Females may not show any signs of having the infection and may only find out they have it during a routine pelvic examination.

According to the ACS, people with a past or current chlamydia infection may have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

According to an article in the Journal of Cancer, the Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria can alter the normal function of cells. This alteration can lead to inflammatory responses that may lead to cancer development.

The ACS also notes that the chlamydia bacteria may help HPV grow in the cervix, which also increases the risk of cancer.

According to a 2017 study, scientists found an association between a type 2 herpes infection and a person’s risk of developing cervical cancer.

They noted in their study that years of research had not conclusively proven a link, but their study found sufficient evidence to suggest that type 2 herpes may increase the likelihood of developing cervical cancer.

According to the NCI, the risk of developing cervical cancer is higher in those who have taken oral contraceptives for 5 or more years.

However, once the person stops using the pill, their risk level decreases gradually and eventually returns to a normal risk level after several years.

A person should speak with a doctor about alternate birth control methods if they already have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

Pregnancy may also increase a person’s risk of developing cervical cancer.

Two factors seem to affect the risk of developing cervical cancer, including a full-term pregnancy before the age of 25, particularly before the age of 20, and three or more full-term pregnancies.

Experts are not sure what causes the risk factor to increase, but an increased exposure to HPV as well as hormonal changes may play a role.

The ACS states that smoking doubles a person’s chance of developing cervical cancer in their lifetime compared to those who do not smoke.

They also note that scientists have found the by-products of tobacco in the cervical mucus of people who smoke. These by-products may damage the DNA of the cervix cells, increasing the chances of developing cervical cancer.

Additionally, smoking weakens the immune system, which means that the body is less effective at combating HPV infections.

Without adequate nutrition, the immune system may have more difficulty eliminating HPV infections from the body.

The ACS states that those who do not eat enough fruits and vegetables may be at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

An article from 2019 suggests that a person should eat foods that are high in antioxidants to remove free radicals and oxidants to prevent damage to the DNA.

The authors of the study note that those who eat diets high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, cereals, and fish had a lower chance of HPV infection.

Learn more about how diet influences cervical cancer risk.

Doctors provided DES, a hormone medication, to people between 1938 and 1971 to help prevent pregnancy loss.

The children of people who took this medication may have a higher chance of developing a very rare cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma (CCA). The female children of those who took DES are 40 times more likely to develop CCA than other females.

However, this type of cancer is rare and only 1 out of 1,000 females exposed to DES may develop it.

They may also have an increased risk of developing cancer related to HPV.

People living with a weakened immune system have an increased chance of developing cervical cancer.

The immune system plays a role in destroying cancer cells, which means cancer may develop faster in people living with HIV or who take immune-suppressing medications.

As a person ages, their risk of developing cervical cancer also increases.

According to the ACS:

  • very few people develop it before age 20
  • doctors most frequently diagnose it between 35–44 years of age
  • doctors diagnose greater than 20% of all people with cervial cancer when people are older than 65
  • 50 represents the average age of diagnosis

A person whose parent or sibling had cervical cancer has an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

Experts believe that certain genetic mutations may make a person more susceptible to HPV infections.

Learn more about cervical cancer and genetics.

The two most important ways a person can reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer are getting regular cervical cancer screenings and the HPV vaccine.

Regular screenings can help doctors find and treat any abnormal cells that may lead to cancer. A person can get an HPV test or a Pap smear.

Learn more about HPV blood tests vs. Pap smears.

The HPV vaccine can help prevent a person from contracting HPV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people get vaccinated between the ages of 11 and 12. They should then receive a second dose 6–12 months after the first dose.

Learn more about the HPV shot.

A person can take the following additional steps to help lower their risk of developing cervical cancer:

  • use barrier protection, such as a condom, during sexual activity
  • avoid or stop smoking
  • use alternate forms of birth control to oral contraceptives
  • eat a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • make safe sexual choices

A person has a lower chance of contracting HPV when they limit their number of sexual partners. However, before engaging in sexual activity with a new partner, a person may wish to discuss practicing safe sexual practices and STI testing.

The ACS states that those who have used an intrauterine device, or IUD, had a lower risk for developing cervical cancer. A person should consult a doctor to discuss which type of birth control is the most suitable for them.

Certain factors can increase a person’s risk of developing cervical cancer. Risk factors that a person may be able to change include:

  • contracting a human papillomavirus infection
  • their sexual history, such as having multiple sexual partners
  • having had chlamydia
  • having herpes type 2
  • taking oral contraceptives
  • smoking
  • their diet

Risk factors a person cannot change include their age, a weakened immune system, and genetics.

Though a person cannot control all of the risk factors, they can take steps to reduce developing cervical cancer, such as getting an HPV vaccination, avoiding smoking, and receiving regular cervical cancer screenings.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for cancer, visit our dedicated hub.