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    Smoking and Cervical Cancer: What’s the Connection?

    Published 04 January 2020
    Fact Checked
    Eugenia Tikhonovich, MD
    Reviewed by Eugenia Tikhonovich, MD, Obstetrician-Gynecologist, Medical Consultant
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    Cervical cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer among women. The leading cause of cervical cancer is HPV, a sexually transmitted infection. But can smoking cause cervical cancer? Read on to learn the connections between cervical cancer, HPV, and smoking.

    Overview of cervical cancer

    Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal, cancerous cells begin to develop in the cervix, which is located at the lower end of the uterus. 

    Cancer cells develop when the DNA of healthy cells becomes mutated and the cells multiply rapidly. As these abnormal cells multiply, they bind together to form tumors, which can only be removed by medical or surgical interventions. If left untreated, the cancer cells can spread (metastasize), binding to other healthy cells and tissues in the body. 

    Vaginal bleeding, unusual vaginal discharge, and pelvic pain are some common symptoms of cervical cancer. However, sometimes, cancerous or precancerous cells can be present in the cervix without any symptoms. Get regular checkups and Pap smears to identify any possible abnormalities.

    Between 30 and 50 percent of cancer cases worldwide are preventable. You can reduce your risk of developing cancer by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes diet and exercise. Another way to reduce your risk of developing cancer is to quit smoking. 

    The leading cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be exacerbated by smoking cigarettes.  

    Cervical cancer and smoking: what does the science say?

    A woman thinking about the link between cervical cancer and smoking

    Before we explore the link between cervical cancer and smoking, let’s look at why smoking tobacco is harmful to your health. 

    Tobacco smoke contains thousands of chemicals. Research has found that at least 250 of those chemicals are known to be hazardous to your health, and nearly 70 are known to cause cancer. Smoking tobacco can cause many kinds of cancer – cancer of the kidney, liver, bladder, throat, colon, pancreas, and cervix, to name a few. 

    Tobacco smoke is a known contributing cause for developing HPV, a potentially high-risk virus that can cause cervical cancer.

    When it comes to smoking and cervical cancer, the connection is HPV. Tobacco smoke is a known contributing cause for developing HPV, a potentially high-risk virus that can cause cervical cancer. 

    Science isn’t yet certain why smoking tobacco can lead to HPV, but some possible reasons are: 

    • Smoking limits your immune system’s ability to fight HPV, which, if left untreated, can develop into cancerous lesions. A weakened immune system also struggles to repair any cellular damage caused by HPV or cancer. 
    • When harmful tobacco chemicals enter the body and become absorbed in the bloodstream, they can react with cancerous HPV cells, which can grow or multiply. 
    • Cervical mucus can contain high levels of nicotine and other harmful carcinogens found in cigarettes, which can damage cervical cell DNA. 

    The bottom line is that although research has yet to confirm if smoking can cause cervical cancer, smoking significantly increases your risk of developing any cancer and has been shown to increase your risk of developing HPV.

    Other risk factors of cervical cancer 

    Smoking tobacco isn’t the only possible risk factor for developing HPV. There are other viruses and health and lifestyle choices that can increase your likelihood of getting HPV.

    HPV is the biggest risk factor for getting cervical cancer. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI), which can spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. HPV can also spread through surface-level skin-to-skin touch between genitals. 

    There are more than 100 types of HPV strains in the world, and at least 14 of them are known to cause cancer. These 14 viruses are considered “high risk” types of HPV. The most common HPV-related cancers are caused by two strains: HPV 16 and HPV 18, which cause approximately 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer.

    There are more than 100 types of HPV strains in the world, and at least 14 of them are known to cause cancer.

    If your immune system is compromised (which can happen if you smoke cigarettes), it may struggle to control an HPV infection if you contract it. Left untreated, these high-risk types of HPV can become cancerous before you see any symptoms. For people with normal-functioning immune systems, HPV cells can become cancerous in 15–20 years. For people with compromised immune systems, cancerous cells can develop in as few as five years. 

    To reduce your risk of developing cancer caused by HPV, reduce your risk of contracting HPV in the first place by:

    • Practicing safe sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have
    • Getting regularly tested for STIs, as some like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV can increase your risk of getting HPV
    • Keeping your immune system as healthy as possible through positive lifestyle habits like eating a nutritious diet and getting regular exercise
    • Not taking oral contraceptives for more than five years consecutively

    If you have concerns about cervical cancer and HPV, speak with your doctor about decreasing your risk factors.

    A final note about cervical cancer and smoking

    As we’ve discussed, there is a connection between cervical cancer and smoking. Cervical cancer is also one of the most preventable. You can reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer by getting regular Pap smears or pelvic exams, quitting smoking, and getting tested for HPV. Speak with your doctor to make sure that you’re taking preventative measures to reduce your risk of getting cervical cancer.