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The best way to reduce the risk of vaginal cancer is to avoid known risk factors and to find and treat any vaginal pre-cancers. But since many women with vaginal cancer have no known risk factors, it's not possible to completely prevent this disease.
Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is a risk factor for vaginal cancer. HPV infections occur mainly in younger women 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 sexual activity – including vaginal, anal, and oral sex – but sex doesn’t have to occur for the infection to spread. All that's needed is skin-to-skin contact with a part of the body infected with HPV. The virus can be spread through genital-to-genital contact. It’s 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.
HPV is very common, so having sex with even one other person can put you at risk. In most cases the body is able to clear the infection on its own. But in some cases the infection doesn't go away and becomes chronic. Over time, chronic infection, especially with high-risk HPV types, can cause certain cancers, including vaginal cancer and pre-cancer.
Condoms (“rubbers”) provide some protection against HPV. Condoms cannot protect completely because they don’t cover every possible HPV-infected area of the body, such as skin on the genital or anal area. Still, condoms do provide some protection against HPV, and also protect against HIV and some other sexually transmitted diseases.
There are vaccines that protect against infection with certain types of HPV. These vaccines can only be used to prevent HPV infection – they don't help treat an existing infection. To work best, the vaccines should be given before a person is exposed to HPV (such as through sexual activity). These vaccines are approved to help prevent vaginal cancers and pre-cancers. They are also approved to help prevent others cancers, as well as anal and genital warts.
For more information about HPV and HPV vaccines, see HPV (Human Papillomavirus).
Not smoking is another way to lower vaginal cancer risk. Women who don’t smoke are also less likely to develop a number of other cancers, such as those of the lungs, mouth, throat, bladder, kidneys, and several other organs.
Most vaginal squamous cell cancers are believed to start out as pre-cancerous changes, called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia or VAIN. VAIN may be present for years before turning into a true (invasive) cancer. Screening for cervical cancer (such as with a Pap test and HPV test) can sometimes pick up these pre-cancers or problems that might lead to them forming. If a pre-cancer is found, it can be treated, stopping cancer before it really starts.
Still, since vaginal cancer and VAIN are rare, doctors seldom do other tests to look for these conditions in women who don't have symptoms or a history of pre-cancer or cancer of the cervix, vagina, or vulva.
Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN; pre-cancer of the vagina) may not be visible during a routine exam of the vagina. But it may be found with testing that's done to screen for cervical cancer. Because cervical cancer is much more common than vaginal cancer, the HPV test and Pap test that are used for cervical cancer screening take samples from the cervix. But some cells of the vaginal lining are usually also picked up at the same time a Pap smear might be done. This allows some cases of VAIN to be found in women whose vaginal lining is not intentionally scraped. Still, the main goal of these tests is to find cervical pre-cancers and early cervical cancers, not vaginal cancer or VAIN.
In women whose cervix has been removed by surgery to treat cervical cancer or pre-cancer, samples may be taken from the lining of the upper vagina to look for cervical cancer that has come back, and to look for early vaginal cancer or VAIN. Vaginal cancer and VAIN are more common in women who have had cervical cancer or pre-cancer.
Many women with VAIN may also have a pre-cancer of the cervix (known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or CIN). If abnormal cells are found, the next step is a procedure called colposcopy, in which the cervix, the vagina, and at times the vulva are closely examined with a special instrument called a colposcope.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Last Revised: July 21, 2020
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