Viruses That Can Lead to Cancer

Most people think of viruses as small living things that bring on a nasty summer cold. But you might be surprised to learn that some viruses can lead to cancer.

Keep in mind that even if you're infected with a virus that's linked to cancer, it doesn't mean you'll get the disease for sure. And there are things you can do, from vaccines to lifestyle changes, to prevent yourself from catching the virus in the first place.

Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) and Hepatitis C Virus (HCV)

HBV and HCV can cause a liver infection that can sometimes lead to liver cancer. You pick up these viruses if you share needles used to inject drugs, have unprotected sex, or get a transfusion with contaminated blood.

Doctors treat HBV and HCV infections with medicine. You can often get rid of HCV after a few months of treatment. Medication doesn't cure HBV, but it can lower the chance of liver damage and liver cancer.

There's a vaccine to prevent HBV, but not HCV. Those with higher chances of getting HBV should get vaccinated. That includes people who have HIV, inject illicit drugs, or are health care workers.

Kaposi Sarcoma-Associated Herpesvirus (KSHV)

KSHV is a herpes virus that can cause Kaposi sarcoma, a cancer of the blood vessels, as well as two types of lymphoma. You're more likely to get cancer from KSHV if you have a weakened immune system -- your body's defense against germs -- because you had an organ transplant, get chemotherapy, or have AIDS.

The virus can be spread during sex, so you can avoid catching it if you use condoms and limit how many sexual partners you have. It may also be spread through blood and saliva.

Merkel Cell Polyomavirus (MCV)

MCV is a common virus that infects the skin. It usually doesn't cause symptoms or lead to cancer. But in some people, MCV causes a rare skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma.

To help prevent Merkel cell carcinoma and other skin cancers, one important thing to do is use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 when you go outside.

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Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is a group of more than 200 viruses, and at least a dozen of them can cause cancer. HPV spreads during vaginal or anal sex.

HPV often goes away on its own and doesn't cause any health problems. Some people stay infected, though. If they have the HPV that causes cancer, it can lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, tonsils, or tongue.

HPV vaccines can keep you from getting infected with the virus. Health officials recommend them for young women through age 26 and young men through age 21.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type 1 (HIV-1, or HIV)

HIV spreads through unprotected sex and infected needles. An unborn baby can also catch it during pregnancy, and a mother with HIV can spread it to a baby if she breastfeeds.

People with HIV have a weakened immune system and have a greater chance of getting cancers such as:

You can help prevent HIV if you use a condom during sex and don't share needles used to inject drugs. You can also use HIV prevention medicines such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

While there's no cure, you can control HIV with treatment.

Human T-Cell Lymphotropic Virus Type 1 (HTLV-1)

HTLV-1 infects T cells, which are a type of white blood cell. It can cause leukemia and lymphoma.

HTLV-1 spreads several ways, including:

  • From mother to child during birth or through breastfeeding
  • Sharing needles with infected people
  • Organ transplant
  • Sex without condoms

About 2% to 5% of people who have the virus get adult T-cell leukemia or other health conditions. It's not clear why some people get leukemia and others don't. Symptoms and how it develops are different for each person.

There isn't a cure or treatment for HTLV-1. It's a lifelong condition. But regular checkups can lower your chances of cancer.

To help prevent spreading the virus, use condoms and limit how many sexual partners you have. If you're a woman and you're infected, you shouldn't breastfeed.

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Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)

EBV is a common virus. Most people get infected with it at some point in their lives. Most of the time, people with EBV stay healthy and don't have symptoms.

For others, EBV can cause mononucleosis and other more serious conditions, from viral meningitis to pneumonia.

Several cancers are linked with EBV as well:

  • Burkitt's lymphoma
  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (cancer of the upper throat)
  • Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • T-cell lymphomas
  • Post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder (too many white blood cells)
  • Leiomyosarcoma (cancer in the soft tissue)

There's no vaccine for EBV, but you can help protect yourself by not kissing or sharing drinks, food, or personal items with someone who has the virus.

There's no specific treatment if you have EVB, but you can ease symptoms if you drink plenty of fluids, get rest, and take medicines for pain and fever.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 18, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American Society for Microbiology: "Viruses and Human Cancers: a Long Road of Discovery of Molecular Paradigms."

CDC: "About HIV/AIDS," "What is HIV?" "Prevention," "Viral Hepatitis," "About Epstein-Barr Virus," "Epstein-Barr Virus and Infectious Mononucleosis," "What is HPV?"

American Cancer Society: "Viruses that can lead to cancer."

World Hepatitis Alliance: "Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment of Hepatitis B and C."

National Cancer Institute: "NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms," "Merkel Cell Carcinoma Treatment," "Skin Cancer Prevention," "Infectious Agents."

National Toxicology Program: "Cancer-Causing Viruses."

HIV.gov: "Living with HIV."

National Center for Biotechnology Information: "Epidemiology, Treatment, and Prevention of Human T-Cell Leukemia Virus Type 1-Associated Diseases."

Rarediseases.info.nih.gov: "Human T-cell leukemia virus type 1."

American Council on Science and Health: "How Epstein-Barr Virus Causes Cancer."

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