Vaginal Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2020

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing vaginal cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors may raise a woman's risk of developing vaginal cancer:

  • Age. Squamous cell carcinoma most often occurs in women between 50 and 70 years old. The average age of women diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma is 67 years, and about 80% are older than 50 years. 

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research shows that infection with HPV is a risk factor for vaginal cancer. Sexual activity with someone who has HPV is the most common way someone gets HPV. There are different types of HPV, called strains. Research links some HPV strains more strongly with certain types of cancers. There are vaccines available to protect you from some HPV strains.

  • Smoking. Smoking tobacco may increase a woman’s risk of developing vaginal cancer.

  • Cervical cancer. Women who have had cervical cancer or cervical precancerous conditions have an increased risk of vaginal cancer.

  • Previous radiation therapy. Women who have had radiation therapy in the vaginal area have an increased risk of vaginal cancer.

  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES). Women whose mothers took this drug during their pregnancy between the late 1940s and 1971 have an increased risk of clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina. The average age of diagnosis is 19. Because most women whose mothers who took DES are now between 50 and 70, the number of cases has decreased substantially, and now this is a rare tumor. The other long-term risks of DES exposure are not known.

Prevention and early detection

The HPV vaccine Gardasil is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for prevention of vaginal cancer. It is also approved to prevent vaginal precancer and cancer. Gardasil helps prevent infection from the most common types, called strains, of HPV. The vaccine is given as 2 shots spread 6 months apart for girls from 9 through 14 years old. For girls and women 14 years and older, 3 shots is recommended.

Regular gynecologic examinations can help detect cancer or precancerous conditions at an early stage in women with risk factors for vaginal cancer. During a gynecologic exam, the doctor will take a family medical history and perform a general physical examination of the pelvis, during which the doctor will feel a woman’s uterus, vagina, cervix, and other reproductive organs to check for any unusual changes.

In addition, research has shown that certain actions can help prevent vaginal cancer:

  • Delaying first sexual intercourse until the late teens or older

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with multiple partners

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with someone who has had many partners

  • Practicing safe sex, including condom use, although condoms cannot fully protect against HPV

  • Having regular Pap tests (see Diagnosis) to find and treat precancerous conditions

  • Not starting to smoke

  • Quitting smoking, if you currently smoke

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause vaginal cancer, including ways to prevent it. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent vaginal cancer, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your health care team for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what body changes or medical problems vaginal cancer can cause. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.