Non-Hodgkin lymphoma causes and risk factors

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on May 31, 2022.

In 2024, 80,620 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. No one knows if or when non-Hodgkin lymphoma will develop, but it is important to understand common risk factors that may increase a person's chances of developing the disease.

What causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

While the exact causes of the white blood cell changes that lead to non-Hodgkin lymphoma are not known, the risk of developing the disease increases with age. Also, exposure to certain chemicals, such as pesticides, may increase risk, but research is inconclusive and ongoing.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma develops when the DNA in immune cells called lymphocytes mutate or change, disabling their ability to control growth and division. In some cases, these mutated cells grow out of control, crowding out healthy cells in the lymphatic system, reducing the body’s ability to fight infection.

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Non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk factors

Viruses and other medical conditions

People may be at higher risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma if they have diseases or conditions that affect the immune system and/or have been treated for those conditions or disease, including:

Other risk factors for non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Age: The risk of being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma increases with age. More than half of all cases occur in patients older than 65.

Gender: Men have a slightly greater chance of developing the disease than women.

Race: Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in Caucasians than in African Americans.

Exposure: People exposed to certain chemicals, such as pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, may be at risk, but research on the exact link has been inconclusive and is ongoing. Exposure to radiation from nuclear or industrial sources may also increase risk.

Diet: Research is inconclusive on the link between obesity and a high-fat diet and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, some studies are exploring how a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables may lower the risk of lymphoma.

Family history: People who have a child, parent or sibling with non-Hodgkin lymphoma are at higher risk of developing the disease.

A weakened immune system: A variety of factors may cause a weak immune system, potentially leading to a higher risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Next topic: What are the symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

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