Can an STD lead to cancer?

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on June 13, 2022.

Some cancers develop as a result of viral infections. Some sexually transmitted infections are among the types of viruses that may lead to cancer. These include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Hepatitis B virus (HBV)

Condoms, vaccines and screenings may help protect you from STDs and any risk of cancer they pose. Learn more about the connection between cancer and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

What is an STD?

STDs are also sometimes called STIs, which stands for sexually transmitted infections. These are infections that pass from one person to another during sexual contact. You may get an STD through vaginal, anal or oral sex. Depending on the STD, it may be transmitted through:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Skin-to-skin contact

In general, STDs are very common. Some of the most common STDs include herpes, chlamydia and HPV. Not all STDs cause symptoms, so it’s possible to have one without knowing it. In many cases, the only way to know for sure if you have an STD is to get tested.

Which STDs may lead to cancer?

Many STDs are easily treatable, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, which go away after treatment with antibiotics. Certain viral STDs go away on their own, including some strains of HPV and some cases of hepatitis B. Other viral STDs, like HIV and chronic hepatitis B, remain in your system for life.

It’s possible in some cases for certain sexually transmitted infections to lead to cancer down the line. However, most people with these conditions don’t develop cancer. Researchers continue to study links between STDs and later cancer.

Below are the types of STDs that are known to cause cancer in some people.

  • HPV is an extremely common infection that’s passed through skin-to-skin contact, most often during sexual activity. Most strains of HPV go away on their own without causing any problems. However, certain high-risk HPV strains may lead to cancer, especially cervical, anal, oropharyngeal and genital cancers. There are HPV vaccines designed to prevent the strains of HPV that may lead to cancer. In addition, periodic cervical cancer screenings work to detect and eliminate precancerous cells.
  • HIV is a condition that weakens the immune system. It’s transmitted from person to person through certain bodily fluids, including blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluid, breast milk and vaginal fluid. HIV may lead to cancer by making the body more susceptible to other cancer-causing infections. HIV patients face an increased risk for Kaposi sarcoma, certain types of lymphoma, cervical, anal, lung and throat cancers. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) may help reduce the risk of cancer in people living with HIV.
  • HBV is an infection of the liver that may lead to liver cancer. HBV may be spread during sex through bodily fluids such as blood and semen. Infants in the United States are typically vaccinated against HBV. The vaccine is also recommended for adults who may be at high risk for HBV, such as health-care workers, men who have sex with men, people who use intravenous drugs or those traveling to countries where HBV is more common.

How to protect yourself from STDs

The most effective way to protect yourself from STDs is to avoid vaginal, anal or oral sex. Having fewer partners may also help reduce your chance of an STD.

Other important actions you may take to have a healthy sex life while protecting yourself and your partner include:

  • Use condoms during vaginal, anal and oral sex. Condoms protect you from STDs by preventing contact with bodily fluids that may transmit STDs, including HIV and HBV. They are also highly effective at preventing HPV. However, since HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, some risk of transmission remains, because condoms don’t cover 100 percent of the genital skin.
  • Speak with your doctor about vaccines for HPV and HBV. Vaccines are a powerful tool to protect you from viruses that may lead to cancer. Ask your doctor whether you may benefit from a vaccine.
  • Get tested for HIV and HBV. Simple tests may show your status and help you know if you need to start treatment. Ask your partner about his or her status, too. Get screened for cervical cancer. Screenings may detect precancerous lesions so that these may be removed—and the risk of more invasive cancer may be reduced. How often you should be screened for cervical cancer depends on your age and other factors. Pap smears typically start at age 21 and should continue every three years if results are normal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ask your doctor about testing for cervical cancer and HPV as well.

Take charge of your health when it comes to STDs. Be open and talk honestly with your partner about how to protect each other from STDs. Also, stay connected with your doctor to prevent, detect and treat STDs before they lead to cancer.

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