Can vulvar cancer be prevented?
The risk of vulvar cancer can be lowered by avoiding certain risk factors and by having pre-cancerous conditions treated before an invasive cancer develops. Taking these steps cannot guarantee that all vulvar cancers are prevented, but can greatly reduce your chances of developing vulvar cancer.
Avoid HPV infection
Infection with human papilloma virus (HPV) is a risk factor for vulvar cancer. In women, genital HPV infections occur mainly at younger ages and are less common in women over 30. The reason for this is not clear.
HPV is passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact with an infected area of the body. HPV can be spread during sex -- including vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, and oral sex -- but sex doesn't have to occur for the infection to spread. All that is needed is skin-to-skin contact with an area of the body infected with HPV. The virus can be spread through genital-to-genital contact. It is even possible for a genital infection to spread through hand-to-genital contact.
An HPV infection also seems to be able to be spread from one part of the body to another. This means that an infection may start in the cervix and then spread to the vagina and vulva.
It can be very hard to avoid being exposed to HPV. It might be possible to prevent genital HPV infection by not letting others have contact with your anal or genital area, but even then there could be other ways to become infected that aren’t yet clear. For example, a recent study found HPV on the surface of sex toys, so sharing sex toys might spread HPV.
Infection with HPV is common, and in most cases your body is able to clear the infection on its own. But in some cases, the infection does not go away and becomes chronic. Chronic infection, especially with high-risk HPV types, can eventually cause certain cancers, including vulvar cancer.
Certain types of sexual behavior increase a woman's risk of getting a genital HPV infection, such as having sex at an early age and having many sexual partners. Although women who have had many sexual partners are more likely to get infected with HPV, a woman who has had only one sexual partner can still get infected. This is more likely if she has a partner who has had many sex partners or if her partner is an uncircumcised male.
Delaying sex until you are older can help you avoid HPV. It also helps to limit your number of sexual partners and to avoid having sex with someone who has had many other sexual partners.
A person can be infected with HPV for years and not have any symptoms, so the absence of visible warts cannot be used to tell if someone has HPV. Even when someone doesn't have warts (or any other symptom), he (or she) can still be infected with HPV and pass the virus to somebody else.
HPV in men
The 2 main factors influencing the risk of genital HPV infection in men are circumcision and the number of sexual partners. Men who are circumcised (have had the foreskin of the penis removed) have a lower chance of becoming and staying infected with HPV. Men who have not been circumcised are more likely to be infected with HPV and pass it on to their partners. The reasons for this are unclear. It may be that after circumcision the skin on the glans (of the penis) goes through changes that make it more resistant to HPV infection. Another theory is that the surface of the foreskin (which is removed by circumcision) is more easily infected by HPV. Still, circumcision does not completely protect against HPV infection -- men who are circumcised can still get HPV and pass it on to their partners.
The risk of a man being infected with HPV is also strongly linked to having many sexual partners (over a man's lifetime).
Condoms and HPV
Condoms ("rubbers") provide some protection against HPV, but they do not completely prevent infection. Men who use condoms are less likely to be infected with HPV and pass it on to their female partners. One study found that when condoms are used correctly every time sex occurs, they can lower the HPV infection rate in women by about 70%. Condoms cannot protect completely because they don't cover every possible HPV-infected area of the body, such as the skin on the genital or anal area. Still, condoms do provide some protection against HPV, and they also protect against HIV and some other sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms (when used by the male partner) also seem to help genital HPV infections clear (go away) faster in both women and men.
Get vaccinated against HPV
Vaccines are available that protect against certain HPV infections. All of them protect against infection with HPV subtypes 16 and 18. Some can also protect against infections with other HPV subtypes, including some types that cause anal and genital warts.
These vaccines can only be used to prevent HPV infection --they do not help treat an existing infection. To be most effective, the vaccine should be given before a person becomes exposed to HPV (such as through sexual activity).
All of these vaccines can help prevent cervical cancer and pre-cancer. At this time though, only 2 of the HPV vaccines available, Gardasil and Gardasil 9, are approved to prevent vulvar cancers and pre-cancers. They are also approved to help prevent anal and genital warts, as well as other cancers.
More HPV vaccines are being developed and tested.
For more information, see HPV Vaccines.
Not smoking is another way to lower the risk for vulvar cancer. Women who don't smoke are also less likely to develop a number of other cancers, like those of the lungs, mouth, throat, bladder, kidneys, and several other organs.
Find and treat pre-cancerous conditions
Pre-cancerous vulvar conditions that are not causing any symptoms can be found by regular gynecologic checkups. It is also important to see your health care provider if any problems come up between checkups. Symptoms such as vulvar itching, rashes, moles, or lumps that don't go away could be caused by vulvar pre-cancer and should be checked out. If vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) is found, treating it might help prevent invasive squamous cell vulvar cancer. Also, some vulvar melanomas can be prevented by removing atypical moles.
The vulva is examined at the same time a woman has a pelvic examination. Cervical cancer screening with a Pap test (sometimes combined with a HPV test) is often done at the same time. Neither the Pap test nor the HPV test is used to screen for vulvar cancer. The purpose of these tests is to find cervical cancers and pre-cancers early. For more information about these tests and the American Cancer Society guidelines for the early detection of cervical cancer, see our documents Cervical Cancer, and Cervical Cancer: Prevention and Early Detection.
How Pap tests and pelvic examinations are done
First, the skin of the outer lips (labia majora) and inner lips (labia minora) is examined for any visible abnormalities. The health care professional then places a speculum inside the vagina. A speculum is a metal or plastic instrument that keeps the vagina open so that the cervix can be seen clearly. Next, using a small spatula, a sample of cells and mucus is lightly scraped from the exocervix (the surface of the cervix that is closest to the vagina). A small brush or a cotton-tipped swab is then inserted into the cervical opening to take a sample from the endocervix (the inside part of the cervix that is closest to the body of the uterus). Then, the speculum is removed. The doctor then will check the organs of the pelvis by inserting 1 or 2 gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina while he or she palpates (feels) the lower abdomen, just above the pubic bone, with the other. The doctor may do a rectal exam at this time also. It is very important to know that a Pap test is not always done when a pelvic exam is done, so if you are uncertain you should ask if one was done.
Self-exam of the vulva
For most women, the best way to find VIN and vulvar cancer is to report any signs and symptoms to their health care provider and have a yearly well-woman exam. If you have an increased risk of vulvar cancer, you may also want to check your vulva regularly to look for any of the signs of vulvar cancer. This is known as self-examination. Some women choose to examine themselves monthly using a mirror. This can allow you to become aware of any changes in the skin of your vulva. If you do this, look for any areas that are white, darkly pigmented, or red and irritated. You should also note any new growths, nodules, bumps, or ulcers (open sores). Report any of these to a doctor, since they could indicate a vulvar cancer or pre-cancer.
Last Medical Review: 07/02/2014
Last Revised: 01/12/2015