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Almost all cases of cervical cancer (9 in 10) are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).


HPV is the name for a very common group of viruses.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV.

There are low-risk types that do not cause cancer. For example, the types of HPV that cause genital warts.

But there are high-risk types that cause cancer.

You can get HPV from any kind of sexual contact of the genital area, not just penetrative sex.

Sexual contact includes:

  • vaginal, oral or anal sex
  • any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
  • sharing sex toys

HPV is not the only cause of cervical cancer. You can get cervical cancer if you have never had sex.

Abnormal cervical cells

HPV can cause cells in the cervix to change.

These abnormal cell changes can develop into cervical cancer over time. Abnormal cells are often called pre-cancerous cells. It usually takes 15 to 20 years for abnormal cells to become cancer.

But in rare cases it can develop quicker.


Never ignore symptoms.

Always attend cervical screening when it’s due. Regular screening can help prevent cancer from developing.

Abnormal cells are not cancer. But they can develop into cancer if they are not found and treated.

Other risks

If you have HPV there are some things that put you at higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

These include:

  • smoking - if you smoke you are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer
  • having a weakened immune system
  • being sexually active in your early teenage years
  • if your birth mother took the hormonal drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant with you

Reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

Page last reviewed: 22 November 2023
Next review due: 22 November 2026

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.