What Causes Lymphoma?

Macmillan Cancer Support

The causes of lymphoma are mostly unknown. But some things may increase the risk of developing it,  such as having a weakened immune system. These are called risk factors.

Having one or more of these risk factors does not mean you will get lymphoma. Many people with lymphoma do not have any risk factors.

Risk factors of Hodgkin lymphoma

Age

Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in people over 70. But it can happen at any age. It is one of the most common cancers in people in their teens and early 20s.

Gender

Lymphoma is slightly more common in men than women.

Infection

The Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is sometimes linked to Hodgkin lymphoma. EBV is the virus that causes glandular fever. It is very common in the UK and does not usually cause serious illness. It is rare to develop lymphoma because of an EBV infection. Lymphoma is not infectious and cannot be passed on to other people.

A weakened immune system

If your immune system is weak, you have a higher risk of developing lymphoma. Conditions such as HIV can weaken the immune system.  Drugs called immunosuppressants can also weaken the immune system. Some people need these drugs after an organ transplant or to treat auto-immune disease.

Having a close relative with lymphoma

People who have a parent, brother or sister with lymphoma, have higher risk of developing Hodgkin lymphoma. The reason for this is not known. It may be because there is a genetic change that runs in families. Or it could be because people within one family tend to have the same lifestyle factors.

This risk is very small. Most people who have a close relative with lymphoma will not develop lymphoma.

Risk factors of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL)

Age

NHL can affect people at any age. But it is more common in people who are over 50.

Gender

Lymphoma is slightly more common in men than women.

Infections

Some viruses or bacteria can increase the risk of developing NHL:

  • Helicobacter pylori infection sometimes causes a type of NHL called MALT lymphoma.
  • Epstein Barr virus (EBV) infection, which causes glandular fever, may slightly increase the risk of developing some types of NHL.
  • Hepatitis C virus (HCV) can slightly increase the risk of splenic marginal zone lymphoma (SMZL).
  • Human T-lymphocytotrophic virus-1 (HTLV-1) is a rare infection that is linked with T-cell lymphoma in some people.

Most people who have had these infections will not develop lymphoma. Lymphoma is not infectious and cannot be passed on to other people.

A weakened immune system

If your immune system is weak, you have a higher risk of developing lymphoma. Conditions such as HIV can weaken the immune system. We have more information about lymphoma and HIV.

Drugs called immunosuppressants can also weaken the immune system. Some people need these drugs after an organ transplant or to treat auto-immune disease.

Auto-immune disease

Auto-immune diseases develop when the immune system attacks healthy body tissue by mistake. Several auto-immune diseases can increase the risk of lymphoma. These include:

  • coeliac disease
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • systemic lupus erythematosus.

Doctors do not fully understand why these diseases increase the risk of developing lymphoma. It may be because of the diseases themselves, or the treatments used to control them.

A previous cancer

NHL is slightly more common in people who have had cancer before. This may be because of the cancer or because of the cancer treatments. Radiotherapy and some chemotherapy drugs can increase the risk of developing NHL many years later. But the risk is small compared to the benefit of having the treatment.

Useful resources

Each month we run an online support group for men on active surveillance - a form of...
There are hundreds of prostate cancer support groups in the UK. We have details of many...
Call us for free, unbiased, confidential support and information. There's no such thing...
Someone is diagnosed every 15 minutes. What do you know about bowel cancer? Book a free...
Treatment for cancer may mean you have to make many visits to hospital to see your...
Macmillan Grants are a one-off payment of £350 to help with the extra costs that living...
We have a team of trained volunteers throughout the UK who carry out talks to groups both...
Living with prostate cancer can be hard to deal with emotionally, as well as physically...
We’re a community of people in the UK receiving immunotherapy treatment for bowel cancer...
Cancer Focus NI can provide a wide range of presentations to meet the needs of your...
Writing is well-known to have therapeutic benefits – it gives you a voice and a way of...
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they may experience feelings of shock, anger, or...
As part of this community, you can talk about whatever you want, from diagnosis to...
The important thing to remember when you’re affected by prostate disease is that you’re...
We’re a supportive and safe place for people with stage 4 bowel cancer living in the UK,...
The Quick Fit programme offers positive steps to improve your health through diet and...
Affected by breast cancer? Join this group to share experiences and ask questions to...
Thrive is a community and safe space for younger women to connect with and support each...
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they may experience feelings of shock, anger, or...
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they may experience feelings of shock, anger, or...
The Cancer Focus NI Well Aware service is aimed at the over 60s and is offered in a range...
Macmillan nurses are specialist cancer nurses with experience and qualifications in...
Prostate Cancer UK have a team of trained volunteers throughout the UK who carry out...
Bowel Cancer UK Community — a place for anyone affected by bowel cancer to talk about...
After surgery and treatment for breast cancer, some women feel less confident about their...
Cancer Focus NI is the only local cancer charity to provide a free cancer information and...
LearnZone provides free and easy access to a wide variety of learning resources , online...
Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s Email Forum – or E Forum – helps us keep up to date with...
Going through cancer can be an isolating experience at any time, and especially when...
A healthy diet and regular physical activity may help you manage the effects of prostate...
We rely on our incredible volunteers to help us spread the word about prostate cancer,...
We know that money is a big and often difficult thing to talk about when you’re living...
There are a number of health campaigns throughout the year to raise awareness of...
Cancer Focus NI’s Art therapy service is for anyone affected by cancer. Art therapy helps...
Bupa is working in partnership with Macmillan to offer up to 6 free one-to-one...
Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s Email Forum – or E Forum – helps us keep up to date with...
Fatigue support is a telephone programme which includes 4 appointments with a Specialist...
The Sexual support service is a chance for you, or your partner, to talk to one of our...
Welcome to the Caregiver Help & Support group. We're a supportive and safe place for...
‘Engage’ training is a comprehensive one day programme which seeks to address the current...
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they may experience feelings of shock, anger, or...
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they may experience feelings of shock, anger, or...
When an adult in the family is diagnosed with cancer it affects the entire family. It can...
There are so many ways to get involved, from cheering on a marathon runner to...
Cancer Focus NI, Keeping Well vans are mobile drop-in units which bring health checks,...
Our nurses are here to help. They can provide you with information, and signpost you to...
Zest for Life is a free 6-week programme led by a Cancer Focus NI facilitator. The course...
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they may experience feelings of shock, anger, or...
The Macmillan Online Community is a free online place for people who are living with or...
We're always looking for enthusiastic people to help with our work. We have a range of...
Whether you need help defining sparse brows and lashes, caring for nails that are...
Track your treatment and wellbeing
Support for breast cancer
Prostate Cancer UK launched a campaign to encourage men at higher risk of prostate cancer...

Articles & Videos

Helplines & Web Chats

Marie Curie - Helpline
Cancer Research UK - Helpline
Bowel Cancer UK - Forum
Bowel Cancer UK - Ask a Nurse
Macmillan Helpline
Cancer Focus - Nurse Line
Macmillan - Forum
Prostate Cancer UK - Forum
Macmillan - Ask an expert
Prostate Cancer UK - Specialist Nurse
Macmillan - Bereavement Forum