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Yes, human papillomavirus (HPV) causes 70% of cancers of the vagina and vulva. Researchers believe that HPV (particularly Types 16 and 18) is the primary cause of vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN), a precancerous condition. When a woman has VAIN, the cells in the inner lining of her vagina appear somewhat abnormal, but not to the degree where they would be classified as cancerous. Some women with VAIN eventually develop vaginal cancer.

Other vaginal and vulvar cancer risk factors include being over age 70, having a mother who took the miscarriage prevention drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), having vaginal adenosis or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), experiencing chronic vaginal or vulvar irritation or uterine prolapse, having cervical cancer or pre-cancer, smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Notably, having HPV or any of these other risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman will get vaginal cancer—it just means that she’s more likely to develop it.

How to minimize your chances of vaginal or vulvar cancer

One of the best things you can do to avoid contracting HPV is to receive the HPV vaccine if your physician determines that it’s appropriate for you. Regardless of whether you’re vaccinated against HPV, it’s important to regularly undergo pelvic examinations and Pap smears. Although Pap smears are a screening tool for cervical cancer and not for vaginal or vulvar cancer, advocate for yourself by asking your provider to do a visual inspection of your vulva and vagina. Your physician will be able to let you know when you should start undergoing these tests, how often you should have them completed, and if HPV testing with or without a Pap test is an option for you. You should also consider using condoms during sexual intercourse—although they don’t completely protect you from HPV, they can help reduce its transmission.    

Get the information you need

If you have vaginal or vulvar cancer symptoms, turn to the specialists at Moffitt Cancer Center’s gynecological clinic. You can request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing a new patient registration form online.

Causes and Risk Factors