Risks and causes of cervical cancer

    What is a risk factor?

    Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor.

    Will I get cervical cancer if I have several risk factors?

    Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get cervical cancer.

    What is the main cause of cervical cancer?

    Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a major cause of cervical cancer. Practising safe sex can reduce the chances of HPV infection. Vaccines are available and effective in preventing HPV.

    Does smoking increase the risk of cervical cancer?

    Smoking tobacco increases your risk of getting cervical cancer. The risk increases with the more cigarettes you smoke a day.

Cervical cancer is the 14th most common cancer in females in the UK.

What is a risk factor?

Anything that can increase your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor.

Different cancers have different risk factors.­ Having one or more of these risk factors doesn't mean you will definitely get that cancer.


Cervical cancer is more common in younger females. Most cervical cancer cases diagnosed in the UK each year are in females aged 30 to 34.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection

The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes almost all of the main types of cervical cancer.

HPV is common. Most sexually active people come into contact with HPV during their lifetime. But for most the virus causes no harm and goes away on its own.

Types of HPV

There are many different types of HPV. Most are harmless but some cause genital warts. Others cause changes that can develop into cancer. As well as cervical cancer, HPV can cause:

  • anal
  • vaginal
  • vulval
  • penile
  • some types of mouth and throat cancers

HPV can be passed on through close skin to skin contact, usually during sexual activity.

Around 14 types of HPV are considered high risk for cervical cancer. Two of these types (HPV 16 and HPV 18) cause about 70 out of 100 (70%) of all cervical cancer cases.

In most people, the immune system clears about half of HPV infections within 6 to 12 months. But sometimes this doesn't happen. If you have a long lasting (persistent) infection with a high risk type of HPV, you are more at risk of developing cervical cancer.


Practising safer sex by using condoms will reduce your risk of getting HPV and passing it on. But they won’t protect you completely. Practising safer sex will also help to protect you against many sexually transmitted diseases.


There are now vaccines to prevent HPV infection. All boys and girls aged 12 or 13 in the UK are routinely offered the HPV vaccine at school. These vaccines protect against the types of HPV that are most likely to cause cervical cancer. But they don't protect against all types. So, you still need to take part in cervical screening, even if you have had the HPV vaccine.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Having human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or AIDS increases the risk of developing cervical cancer. This risk might be reduced in women who are having treatment for HIV.

Other sexually transmitted infections

The risk of cervical cancer may be increased in women who have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) alongside HPV.

Women with both HPV and chlamydia might have a higher risk of cervical cancer. Chlamydia is pronounced klah-mid-ee-ah.

Smoking tobacco

Smoking tobacco increases your risk of getting cervical cancer. The risk increases with the more cigarettes you smoke a day.

It’s never too late to stop smoking, but the sooner you stop, the better.

Contraceptive pill

The contraceptive pill is associated with a slightly higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

Taking the pill for more than 5 years increases the risk of cervical cancer. The increased risk begins to drop as soon as you stop taking it. After 10 years the risk is the same as that of people who had never taken it.

The pill can also slightly increase the risk of breast cancer. But it is important to know that taking the pill can help reduce the risk of womb and ovarian cancers.

Family history

You have an increased risk of a type of cervical cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) Open a glossary item if your mother, sister or daughter has had cervical cancer. We don’t know whether this is linked to faulty genes or is due to shared environmental factors, including human papillomavirus (HPV).

More information on risk factors for cervical cancer

Cancer myths

Stories about potential causes are often in the media and it isn’t always clear which ideas are supported by evidence. There might be things you have heard of that we haven’t included here. This is because either there is no evidence about them or it is less clear.

Reducing your risk

Regular cervical screening can prevent cervical cancer by picking up abnormal cell changes in the cervix. These changes could lead to cancer if left untreated. 

Cervical screening is available for women between the ages of 25 to 64.

  • List of classifications by cancer sites with sufficient or limited evidence in humans
    International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)
    Accessed September 2023

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (12th edition)

    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg

    Wolters Kluwer, 2023

  • Trichomonas vaginalis infection is associated with increased risk of cervical carcinogenesis: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 470 000 patients

    B Hamar and others

    International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 2023 April 3. Volume 00, Pages 1 to 13

  • Human Papillomavirus: Screening, Testing, and Prevention

    J Quinlan

    American Family Physician, 2021 August 1, Volume 104, Issue 2, Pages:152 to 159

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in.

Last reviewed: 
12 Sep 2023
Next review due: 
12 Sep 2026

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