Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes most cases of cervical cancer. However, other factors such as smoking, having a weak immune system, and long-term use of birth control pills can increase a person’s risk of cervical cancer.

Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women. However, the condition is highly preventable with proper screening and interventions.

This article discusses the causes and risk factors of cervical cancer. Learn who is more likely to get cervical cancer, how a person can lower their risk of cervical cancer, steps to prevent it, and more.

A doctor explaining what causes cervical cancer besides HPV. -1Share on Pinterest
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HPV is a very common virus that passes through sexual contact.

HPV causes almost all cases of cervical cancers — around 99%. The other 1% of cervical cancer cases do not have common enough causes to pinpoint, and researchers need to investigate these potential other causes.

However, some experts think that the rate of HPV-related cervical cancers could be higher. This is because some people may not detect HPV if there is a short time between acquiring the infection and testing for the virus.

Although HPV infection is the main cause, other risk factors can make a person more likely to get cervical cancer.

These include:

  • Smoking: Tobacco use exposes a person to many cancer-causing chemicals. People who smoke are two times more likely to develop cervical cancer than those who do not smoke.
  • Long-term use of oral contraceptives: Taking birth control pills for a prolonged time increases a person’s risk of cervical cancer. When they stop taking the pills, their risk level starts to decrease over time.
  • Multiple pregnancies: Having three or more full-term pregnancies puts a person at higher risk for cervical cancer. This may be due to the increased exposure to HPV infection.
  • Weakened immune system: Having a weak immune system due to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or taking medications that lower the immune system’s response puts a person at higher risk for cervical cancer.
  • Family history: Having a family history of cervical cancer increases a person’s chance of developing it.
  • Sexual history: People who become sexually active before the age of 18, those who have many sex partners, and people who have sex with someone who has an HPV infection put themselves at a higher risk of cervical cancer.
  • Chlamydia infection: This is a rather common bacteria that can infect the reproductive system and cause several problems, including pelvic inflammation and fertility difficulties. People who have had a chlamydia infection are at higher risk for cervical cancer.
  • Poor diet: People who do not include fruits and vegetables in their diet are at higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

People who have an HPV infection are the most likely to start developing cervical cancer. HPV infections cause 99% of all cervical cancers.

However, other conditions may also make a person more susceptible:

  • long-term smokers
  • people with a history of multiple pregnancies
  • people who became sexually active at a young age
  • people who have a family history of cervical cancer
  • people with weak immune systems
  • people who take birth control pills for a prolonged period

If a person wants to lower their risk of cervical cancer, several lifestyle changes and medical interventions can help.

Smoking cessation greatly reduces a person’s risk for all kinds of cancer, including cervical cancer.

Following safer sex practices, such as using a condom, may lower a person’s risk by decreasing exposure to HPV, but not eliminate it completely.

It is important for a person to discuss the risks of taking oral contraceptives with their doctor to determine if the benefits outweigh the risks.

Regular screening tests can help the doctor determine if any cervical cells are starting to grow abnormally and prescribe any interventions if needed.

While not all cervical cancer is preventable, several prevention strategies, including the HPV vaccine and routine screening, may help prevent cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine can prevent cervical cancer about 90% of the time. Anyone between the ages of 9–45 can get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine targets the most common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.

Routine screening involves the HPV test and Pap test or Pap smear. A person can get both tests in their doctor’s office or clinic. The HPV test looks for the HPV virus, while the Pap test looks for precancerous cells on the cervix.

Getting screened is an important part of preventing or detecting cervical cancer early.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends getting the first HPV or Pap tests at age 21. The doctor will then determine if the person should have a new test every 3 or 5 years.

By age 65, the person and their doctor can determine whether they need further testing.

During a Pap test, the doctor will use an instrument called a speculum to look inside the vagina. The doctor can visualize the cervix and look for any abnormal areas. They will collect a small sample of mucus and cells from the cervix and send it to a laboratory.

For the HPV test, the doctor will also use a speculum to visualize the cervix and take a small sample of mucus and cells.

A laboratory will evaluate the sample and look for HPV. Sometimes, doctors will perform these tests at the same time.

This section answers some frequently asked questions about cervical cancer and HPV.

Can you get cervical cancer without being exposed to HPV?

Although very rare, a person can get cervical cancer without being exposed to HPV due to the other risk factors making it possible.

Which patient is at the highest risk for cervical cancer?

People who have persistent HPV infections, those who smoke, and those with weakened immune systems are at the highest risk for developing cervical cancer.

While the predominant cause of cervical cancer is HPV, the condition can also arise from other risk factors such as smoking, long-term oral contraceptive use, a family history of cervical cancer, and other elements.

Knowing what these risks are and taking preventive measures like vaccination, regular screening, and adopting healthy lifestyle changes can lower a person’s risk of developing cervical cancer.

Early detection through regular screening continues to be a key element in the successful management and treatment of cervical cancer.