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What are the risk factors?

The exact cause of vulvar cancer is unknown, but factors that increase the risk of developing it include:

Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) – This precancerous condition causes changes in the skin of the vulva. The vulva may itch, burn or feel sore. VIN may disappear on its own, but most women with VIN need some treatment. The condition sometimes becomes cancerous – about one in three women diagnosed with vulvar cancer also has VIN.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) – Also known as the wart virus, HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause women to develop VIN. It can be many years between the initial infection with HPV and the first signs of VIN or vulvar cancer. HPV is a common virus and most women with HPV don’t develop vulvar or any other type of cancer. Although HPV is sexually transmitted, vulvar cancer itself is not contagious and it can’t be passed on to other people through sexual contact.

HPV has been linked to a number of cancers, including vulvar, vaginal, cervical, anal and oral cancers. Studies have shown that HPV vaccination can reduce the risk of developing abnormal cell changes that may lead to cancer, even in older women. Talk to your doctor about whether the HPV vaccination may be of benefit to you.

Abnormal cervical screening test – If a woman has had any abnormal cell changes detected on a cervical screening test, she has a slightly higher risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Other skin conditions – Vulvar lichen planus and vulvar lichen sclerosus are skin conditions that can cause itching and soreness. If not treated, these conditions can cause permanent scarring and narrow the vaginal opening. In a small number of women, they may develop into vulvar cancer after many years.

Other cancers – Women who have had cervical cancer or vaginal cancer have an increased risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Smoking – Cigarette smoking increases the risk of developing VIN and vulvar cancer. This may be because smoking can make the immune system work less effectively.

Weakened immune system – Women who’ve had an organ transplant or have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may be at higher risk of developing vulvar cancer because their immune system is not working normally.