Does Herpes Raise Your Cancer Risk?

It's scary to say, but genital herpes is incredibly common: nationwide, 16.2 percent, or about one out of six, people 14 to 49 years of age have genital HSV-2 infection. Most cases of genital herpes are caused by a herpes simplex virus called HSV-2, though some cases of this sexually transmitted disease are caused by another herpes simplex virus,  HSV-1. While herpes is treatable, it's also packs a variety of risks. And one worry is whether herpes could, in fact, increase one's risk of cancer.

While herpes is not directly linked to the development of cervical or oral cancer, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), another group of viruses, is associated with some cancers. A large number of people with HPV have come down with penile, head or neck cancer, says Joshua Rosenberg, MD, an infectious diseases specialist and associate director of the intensive care unit at Long Island College Hospital in New York.  And, he adds, having herpes might lead to an increased risk of invasive cervical cancer in patients co-infected with HPV.

"The strongest link between the two illnesses (herpes and cancer) is that people who have herpes are frequently co-infected with HPV," Rosenberg says. "But there is not a direct link between herpes and cancer."

To further confuse matters, HPV isn't just one virus, but more than 100 related viruses. Only some types of HPV appear to cause cancer.

Though the major risk factors for oral cancer are tobacco and alcohol abuse (these two are responsible for about 75 percent of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control), some research implicates some HPV viruses in the development of oral cancer.

Of the cancers that are linked to herpes, cervical cancer stands out as one that could be prevented. It's important to find and treat pre-cancers before they become malignant, and then to prevent the pre-cancers.

Here's what the American Cancer Society recommends for women:

● Women should begin to get tested for cervical cancer three years after they start having vaginal intercourse. A conventional, or regular Pap test, should be an annual test.

● At age 30, women who've had three normal Pap test results in a row need to be tested only every two or three years.

● Another option for women over 30 (those with normal Pap results and normal immune systems) is to get tested every three years with both a Pap test and an HPV DNA test. (This is a test that looks for the high-risk types of HPV that are most likely to result in cervical cancer by checking for pieces of their DNA in the cells in the cervix.)

● To ensure an accurate Pap test, don't schedule an appointment during your menstrual period, don't douche for 24 hours before the test, and don't have sex for 48 hours before the test. Birth control foams, jellies, tampons and other vaginal creams and medications should not be used for 48 hours before the test.


Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer. American Cancer Society.

Learn About Cancer: Cervical Cancer. American Cancer Society.

Improving Diagnoses of Oral Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.