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Vulvar cancer

Risk factors for vulvar cancer

While the exact cause of many vulvar cancers may not be known, several factors may increase risk of developing the disease.

General

Age: Approximately 80 percent of vulvar cancer cases occur in women who are over the age of 50, and over 50 percent of cases occur in women age 70 or older.

Lifestyle

Smoking: Smoking is considered a risk factor for vulvar cancer, particularly in women who have already been infected with a high-risk HPV virus.

Other conditions

Lichen sclerosus: This condition is characterized by thin, itchy vulvar skin, and it slightly increases a woman’s vulvar cancer risks.

Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN): This is a precancerous condition in which abnormal cells are restricted to the top layer of skin of the vulva (also known as the epithelium). VIN, previously called dysplasia, is generally associated with HPV infection. While the presence of VIN increases the risk of eventually developing invasive vulvar cancer, not all women with VIN will develop cancer. However, it is important to treat the condition and to get regular gynecologic check-ups.

Human papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is a group of more than 100 viruses that are sexually transmitted and have been associated with vulvar cancers, as well as other cancers of the reproductive system. Some of the more common HPV strains cause noncancerous warts (papillomas), while other types of HPV infections may have no visible symptoms. HPV types 16, 18 and 31 have been most strongly linked to cancer, and these are known as high-risk HPV viruses. Approximately 50 percent of all vulvar cancers are linked to infection with a high-risk virus, and these are more commonly seen in younger women. Protection against HPV infection may help many women reduce their vulvar cancer risk.

Cervical cancer: A previous diagnosis of cervical cancer may increase the risk of vulvar cancer. This higher risk may be related to shared risk factors, such as HPV infection and smoking.

Next topic: What are the symptoms of vulvar cancer?