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A risk factor is anything that affects a person's chance of getting a disease like cancer. Some risk factors, such as smoking, can be controlled. Others, like a person's age or race, can't be changed. But having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease. Women without any risk factors for cervical cancer rarely get it. But, while these risk factors increase the odds of getting cervical cancer, many women with these risks do not get this disease.

In looking at risk factors, it helps to focus on those that can be changed. Those that can't be changed serve to remind women about the importance of getting screened for cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer risk factors include:

  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection: this is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer
  • Smoking
  • Weak immune system: from HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection or medicines
  • Taking birth control pills
  • Chlamydia infection
  • Having 3 or more full-term pregnancies
  • Giving birth before age 17
  • Your mother taking the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) while she was pregnant with you
  • Having a mother or sister who had cervical cancer
  • Being overweight or obese increases the risk of one kind of cervical cancer (adenocarcinoma)

For more information about these risk factors, see our document Cervical Cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV is a group of related viruses that can infect the cells lining the genitals (including the surface of the cervix), anus, mouth and throat. It can also infect the skin. Some types of HPV cause warts, with certain types causing genital warts. These types are called low risk HPVs because they are rarely linked to cancer. Other types are called high-risk because they are strongly linked to certain cancers, including cancer of the cervix. In fact, doctors believe that a woman must be infected by HPV before she develops cervical cancer.

HPV is passed from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact. Sex, including vaginal, anal, and oral, is the most common way to get infected with HPV.

Most people who are infected with HPV are able to fight the infection and it goes away without any treatment. But in some women, the infection lasts and can cause certain cancers, including cervical cancer.

The Pap test can find cell changes that are caused by HPV infection. Other tests look for the infections themselves by finding genes (DNA) from HPV in the cells. For some women, the HPV test is used along with the Pap test as a part of screening.

Even though HPV is an important risk factor for cervical cancer, most women with this infection do not get cervical cancer. Doctors believe other factors must come into play for this cancer to start.

More information about HPV can be found in our document HPV and HPV Testing.

Last Medical Review: 10/15/2014
Last Revised: 01/29/2016