Do viruses cause cancer?

December 20, 2017 | by Alexander Hantel, M.D.

Think of the last time you went to the doctor feeling miserable with a head cold. If you’ve ever heard the words “you have a virus,” from your physician, you know exactly what it means. There are no antibiotics that can help you feel better, and usually only cold remedies can help ease your symptoms.

But what exactly is a virus and why does it make you feel so miserable? Viruses are tiny germs that can cause familiar infectious diseases, like the common cold and flu. Viruses are like hijackers — they invade normal, healthy cells and use those cells to reproduce and multiply, which can make you sick.

While some viruses don’t cause much harm and are more of a nuisance, there are more serious viruses that cause severe illnesses. Some are even linked to cancer. They include:

Human papillomaviruses (HPVs)

 HPVs are the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Infection with high-risk types of HPV cause nearly all cervical cancers. It also causes vagina, vulvar, anal and head and neck cancers. Several vaccines have been developed that help prevent HPV infections that cause most HPV-associated cancers.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)

EBV is a type of herpes virus most commonly associated with mononucleosis (mono). Infections from EBV increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer, some types of fast-growing lymphomas and some stomach cancers. EBV is very common — about one-third of infected teenagers and young adults develop mono. In very rare cases, the virus can cause cancer.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

HIV is the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV does not cause cancer, but it can weaken your immune system and make your body less able to fight off other infections. Transmitted through blood and sexual contact, people with HIV are 19 times more likely to be diagnosed with anal cancer, 3 times as likely to be diagnosed with liver cancer, 2 times as likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer and oral cavity/pharynx cancer and 8 times more likely to be diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. If you think you are at risk, ask your doctor about being tested.

Hepatitis B (HBV) and Hepatitis C (HCV)

HBV and HCV cause viral hepatitis, a type of liver infection that can cause long-term infections that can increase your risk of liver cancer. Both viruses can be transmitted by sharing needles, through a blood transfusion or during childbirth. HBV can also be transferred through sexual contact. While there is a vaccination for HBV if you are at risk, there is no vaccination for HCV.

The Center for Disease Control recommends all children who are 11 or 12 years old get an HPV vaccination to help reduce the risk of:

  • Cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women
  • Cancers of the penis in men
  • Cancers of the anus and back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (oropharynx), in both women and men

HPV vaccines were found to provide nearly 100 percent protection against persistent cervical infections. Your doctor can help you decide whether vaccinating your child is right for you.

Learn more about cancer screenings and diagnosis at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blogs:

5 reasons your tween should get the HPV vaccine

How to do your part to not get cancer


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