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Dublin: 2°C Monday 29 November 2021

Women who smoke 'at greater risk of HPV infection'

Women with a high level of nicotine metabolite in their urine were at a higher risk of acquiring HPV as well as developing high-grade cervical pre-cancer compared to non-smokers.

RESEARCH FUNDED BY the Irish Cancer Society shows that women who smoke are at greater risk of contracting a Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

The infection is the main cause of cervical cancer, and HPV infects 70 – 80 per cent of women at some stage in their lifetime. According to research that was funded by a €120,000 grant from the Irish Cancer Society, women who smoke are at greater risk of contracting HPV.

Although the immune system can clear HPV, in a small percentage of women who pick up the virus the infection persists and leaves them at increased risk of developing high-grade cervical pre-cancer, and cervical cancer.


The study was led by Irish Cancer Society research scholar Christine White, and the CERVIVA research consortium, which is headed by Professor John O’Leary and Dr Cara Martin at Trinity College and the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital.

Its aim was to establish the impact of smoking on women’s risk of developing cervical pre-cancer. This particular study itself is part of a larger CERVIVA study that is evaluating different ways to improve the management of women with persistent low-grade cervical smears.

Christine White commented:

Our study highlights the harmful effects of tobacco smoke on women’s health. We know that women who smoke have less immune cells in the cervix and our results have shown that these women are at greater risk of the HPV infection, and find it harder to fight off, putting them at a higher risk of getting cervical cancer. The funding from the Irish Cancer Society has been central to our work, and we are very thankful for their support and for the opportunity to bring these important findings to light.

The study – which focused on more than a thousand women with low-grade cervical abnormalities on their smear test – shows that women with detectable nicotine metabolite, which is called cotinine, in their urine sample “were at a higher risk of acquiring a HPV infection than those who were not exposed to tobacco smoke”.

Furthermore, women with high levels of cotinine appear to be at an increased risk of developing high grade cervical pre-cancer compared to non-smokers. Results from this research show that 37 per cent of smokers and 43 per cent of heavy smokers (>10 cigarettes per day) compared to 24 per cent of non-smokers developed a high grade cervical pre-cancer.


Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society, Professor John Fitzpatrick congratulated White on her work, saying it serves to further highlight the dangerous toxins contained in cigarette smoke that are proven to be extremely damaging to your health, as well as the health of those around you.

Cervical cancer is the second most common female cancer in Europe, with about 200 women diagnosed with the disease in Ireland every year.

A government-funded national cervical screening programme is available in Ireland, called CervicalCheck, which provides free smear tests to women aged 25 to 60 years. For more details, contact CervicalCheck at 1800 45 45 55 or visit the CervicalCheck website.

For further information on the Irish Cancer Society’s programme or to make a donation, visit www.cancer.ie or contact the Irish Cancer Society on Call Save 1850 60 60 60.

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