A risk factor is something that raises a person's chances of getting a disease or health problem. A person can have cervical cancer with or without the risks below. The more risks a person has, the greater the chances are.

Cervical cancer is more common in certain places. This includes developing countries and the southern U.S. Women who are poor also have a higher risk of cervical cancer. They may lack access to screening and treatment. Other things that raise the risk for cervical cancer are:

Human Papillomavirus Infection

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the biggest risk factor. HPV is passed through sexual contact. The viruses cause warts on the genitals and anus of males and females. Other types of HPV are linked with cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and back of the throat.

Most HPV goes away on its own. However, lasting HPV infections can affect the cells of the cervix.

Abnormal Cervical Cells

Dysplasia is an abnormal change in cells. Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) is abnormal change in cervical cells. CIN does not cause symptoms. It is diagnosed during Pap tests or biopsies.

CIN raises the risk of cervical cancer. The main cause of CIN is a lasting HPV infection. CIN usually goes away on its own. If it does not, it may be surgically removed.

A Pap test is an effective way to detect abnormal cell growth. Early detection is important. It can help stop dysplasia before it becomes cancer.

Sexual and Childbirth History

Women have a higher risk of cervical cancer if they:

  • Have had multiple sex partners
  • Have a sex partner who has had many sex partners
  • Had sex before age 18
  • Have a history of sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia

The risk of cervical cancer is also higher in women who:

  • Have had multiple children
  • Were less than 19 years old when they had their first child


Smoking affects every cell in the body. It raises the risk of irritation and changes in cells. These changes can lead to cervical and other cancers. The more cigarettes smoked and the number of years as a smoker raise this risk.

Weakened Immune System

The risk of cervical cancer is higher in people with a weak immune system. The immune system can be weakened by certain conditions or medicines. Examples are HIV or taking drugs that suppress the immune system. This can make infections more likely. It can also make it hard to fight off infections. In this case, a woman may be more likely to get an HPV infection. The infection may last and raise the risk of cervical cancer.

Other Possible Risk Factors

Other things that may raise the risk of cervical cancer are:

  • A family history of cervical cancer—rarely
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure in the womb—in women born between 1940 and 1972 whose mothers took this drug
  • Poor nutrition—diets low in fruits and vegetables are linked to many cancers

Cervical cancer. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/cervical-cancer. Accessed April 20, 2021.

General information about cervical cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/patient/cervical-treatment-pdq. Accessed April 20, 2021.

HPV and cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/infectious-agents/hpv/hpv-and-cancer-info.html. Accessed April 20, 2021.

Hu Z, Ma D. The precision prevention and therapy of HPV-related cervical cancer: new concepts and clinical implications. Cancer Med. 2018 Oct;7(10):5217-5236.

What are the risk factors for cervical cancer? American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html. Accessed April 20, 2021.

What is HPV? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/whatishpv.html. Accessed April 20, 2021.

Last reviewed March 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 10/8/2021