The main risk factor for cervical cancer is an infection called the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of this virus. Some types of HPV can affect the cervix. The types that cause abnormal cell changes in the cervix are called high-risk HPV.
Usually, the body’s immune system gets rid of the infection naturally. There are no symptoms and often the virus does not cause damage. Most people will never know they had it.
In some people, the immune system does not get rid of the infection and the virus stays in the body for longer. We do not know exactly why this is. If the cervix is affected by HPV for a long time, the virus can cause damage that may eventually cause cancer.
HPV is very common and most people are infected with it at some point. It can affect all sexual orientations and anyone who has ever been sexually active. This includes people in a long-term relationship with one partner. HPV may still affect you even if you have not been sexually active for some years.
The virus can live on the skin around the whole genital area. It passes easily from person to person during any type of sexual contact, including skin-to-skin genital contact, or sharing sex toys. Using a condom or other barrier contraception may reduce your risk of HPV infection, but it does not offer complete protection.
Cervical cancer itself is not infectious. You cannot catch cancer or pass it on to other people.
The NHS offers a vaccine to children between the ages of 11 and 13 to prevent HPV.
Your risk of developing cervical cancer is higher if you smoke. This may be because:
- smoking makes your immune system less effective at getting rid of HPV
- the chemicals in tobacco can damage your cells.
If you want to stop smoking:
- in England, contact NHS Smokefree
- in Scotland, contact Quit Your Way Scotland
- in Wales, contact Help Me Quit
- in Northern Ireland, contact Stop Smoking.
We have more information about stopping smoking.
If you take the contraceptive pill for more than five years, this may increase your risk of developing cervical cancer. Usually, the benefits of taking the pill outweigh the risks.
Regular cervical screening tests can reduce your risk by finding and treating abnormal changes before cancer develops.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our cervical cancer, cervical screening and CIN information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
GOV.UK. Cervical screening: programme overview. Updated 18 November 2019. Available from www.gov.uk/guidance/cervical-screening-programme-overview (accessed March 20200).
GOV.UK. Colposcopic diagnosis, treatment and follow up. Updated 5 February 2020. Available from www.gov.uk/government/publications/cervical-screening-programme-and-colposcopy-management/3-colposcopic-diagnosis-treatment-and-follow-up (accessed April 2020).
Marth C, Landoni F, Mahner S, et al. Cervical cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines. Annals of Oncology, 2017; 28, suppl 4, iv72–iv83. Available from www.esmo.org/guidelines/gynaecological-cancers/cervical-cancer (accessed October 2020).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Nick Reed, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
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The language we use
We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.
We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.
We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.
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