Causes And Risk Factors Of Lymphoma That May Surprise You


Lymphoma is cancer that begins in infection-fighting cells of the immune system, called lymphocytes. These cells are in the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and other parts of the body. When you have lymphoma, lymphocytes change and grow out of control.

Risks and causes

Read about the risk factors for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

What a risk factor is

Anything that can increase your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Please bear in mind that having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean you will get lymphoma.

Age and gender

Although NHL can happen at any age, just over a third (35%) of people diagnosed with NHL are aged 75 and over. Overall, NHL is slightly more common in men than in women.

Weakened immune system

People whose immune system is not working as well as it should are more likely to develop a lymphoma. Immunity can be lowered for the following reasons:

  • taking drugs to stop organ rejection after a transplant
  • HIV or AIDS
  • being born with a rare medical condition that affects immunity
  • autoimmune diseases

If you have autoimmune disease, your own immune system attacks your body tissue as it would attack a germ. Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, haemolytic anaemia, coeliac disease, Sjogren’s syndrome and systemic lupus erythematosus.


A number of viruses and bacteria have been linked with an increased risk of NHL. However, many of these infections are uncommon in the UK. So the actual number of cases caused by infections here is small.

The infection is only part of a complex process for cancer to develop. Most people with these infections don’t go on to develop NHL. And NHL itself is not infectious.

Helicobacter pylori

A more common bacterial infection called Helicobacter pylori can cause a rare type of lymphoma that starts in the stomach. This type of lymphoma is called MALT lymphoma . MALT stands for mucosa associated lymphoid tissue. This means the lymphoma starts in lymphatic tissue outside the main lymphatic system. In this case, in the lining of the stomach.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Having the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) increases a person’s risk of developing NHL. This risk is greater in some types of NHL, such as diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL). HIV can often be successfully treated with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). The risk of NHL has decreased since the introduction of HAART in 1996.

T cell lymphoma virus 1 (HTLV1)

Infection with a virus called human T cell lymphoma virus 1 (HTLV1) can increase the risk of developing NHL. HTLV1 is most common in Japan and the Caribbean.

Epstein Barr virus

The Epstein Barr virus is linked to an increased incidence of a type of NHL called Burkitt lymphoma. Burkitt lymphoma is more common in Africa than Europe. This is the virus that causes glandular fever (mononucleosis). People who have had mononucleosis might have a higher risk of developing NHL.


People with the hepatitis C virus have an increased risk of developing NHL. But this is a small increased risk for people living in this country The hepatitis B virus might also increase the risk.


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