What Causes Hodgkin Lymphoma?

Scientists have found some risk factors that make a person more likely to get Hodgkin disease, but it’s not always clear exactly how these factors might increase risk.

For example, some researchers think that infection with the Epstein-Barr virus may sometimes cause DNA changes in B lymphocytes, leading to the development of Reed-Sternberg cells, which are the cancer cells in Hodgkin lymphoma.

DNA is the chemical in our cells that makes up our genes, which control how our cells function. We look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than just how we look.

Some genes control when cells grow, divide into new cells, and die:

  • Genes that help cells grow, divide, and stay alive are called oncogenes.
  • Genes that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes.

Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.

Scientists have found many gene changes in Reed-Sternberg cells that help the cells grow and divide or live longer than they should. Reed-Sternberg cells also make substances called cytokines, which attract many other cells into the lymph node, enlarging it. In turn, these non-cancerous cells release substances that further help Reed-Sternberg cells grow.

Despite these advances, scientists do not yet know what sets off these processes. An abnormal reaction to infection with EBV or to other infections may be the trigger in some cases. But more research is needed to understand what causes Hodgkin lymphoma.

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Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Bartlett NL, Foyil KV. Chapter 105: Hodgkin lymphoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Dorshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier: 2014.

Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

Younes A, Carbone A, Johnson P, Dabaja B, Ansell S, Kuruvilla J. Chapter 102: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, 

Last Medical Review: February 10, 2017 Last Revised: March 28, 2017

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.