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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 they can greatly reduce your chances of developing vulvar cancer.
Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is a risk factor for vulvar cancer. In women, 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 sexual activity -- 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 to spread a genital infection 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. If you are sexually active, limiting the number of sex partners and avoiding sex with people who have had many other sex partners can help lower your risk of exposure to HPV. But again, HPV is very common, so having sex with even one other person can put you at risk.
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.
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.
Condoms (rubbers) provide some protection against HPV, but they do not completely prevent infection. 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.
Vaccines that protect against certain HPV infections are available. 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-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 (Human Papillomavirus) .
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.
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 and 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 Cervical Cancer.
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. If a Pap test or HPV test are being done during a pelvic exam, a sample of cells and mucus is lightly scraped from the exocervix (the surface of the cervix that is closest to the vagina) and 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 the lower abdomen is palpated (felt), just above the pubic bone, with the other hand. The doctor may do a rectal exam at this time also. It is very important to know that a Pap test and HPV test are not always done when a pelvic exam is done, so if you are uncertain, you should ask if one was done.
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.
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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