Changes in your DNA that affect your white blood cells cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but it’s not clear what causes these changes. A weakened immune system or exposure to certain chemicals may affect your risk.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is a type of blood cancer. It occurs when white blood cells called lymphocytes grow uncontrollably.

NHL can start anywhere in the lymph system, which is part of your body’s immune system, including the spleen, bone marrow, or lymph nodes. There are over 60 subtypes of NHL, ranging from slow-growing to very aggressive.

Though this type of cancer mostly affects older adults, children can get NHL, too.

Researchers have linked NHL with several risk factors, but the cause of most lymphomas isn’t known. Read on to learn more about potential causes and risk factors for NHL.

NHL results from changes in your DNA (called mutations) that cause typical lymphocytes to change into lymphoma cells. These cells then grow uncontrollably in the body. What causes these changes in DNA isn’t always known, but certain factors can increase your risk.

Scientists have found that it’s possible to inherit DNA mutations from a parent, which can increase your risk for some types of cancer. However, experts think most of the DNA changes related to NHL occur after you’re born rather than being inherited.

These are called acquired gene changes. They could result from exposure to radiation, chemicals, or infections, but these changes often don’t have a clear underlying cause. They seem to happen more often as we get older.

Researchers have identified several factors that can increase your risk of gene changes that can lead to NHL.

Keep in mind that having one or more of these factors doesn’t always mean you’ll develop NHL. It’s also possible to develop NHL even if you don’t have any of the below risk factors.

Weakened immune system

Lymphocytes are part of the immune system. People with certain medical conditions that weaken the immune system may have an increased risk of NHL.

Conditions that can weaken the immune system and increase your risk of NHL include:

Autoimmune conditions

Autoimmune diseases occur when your body’s immune system causes inflammation to healthy cells in your body.

Examples include:

The link between autoimmune conditions and NHL is complex. Researchers think it could be related to chronic activation of the immune system and the use of immunosuppressive drugs to treat the disease.

Celiac disease, in particular, has been shown to increase the risk of NHL significantly. Celiac disease is an illness that occurs when your immune system reacts to eating gluten, a substance found in wheat, barley, or rye.

Viral or bacterial infections

Certain chronic infections are linked to an increased risk of lymphoma. The American Cancer Society (ACS) suspects this is because the immune system is constantly making new lymphocytes to fight the infection. This increases the chances for errors to be introduced into your DNA.

These infections include:

Previous cancer treatments

Treating another cancer with chemotherapy drugs or radiation therapy may increase your risk of developing NHL in the years after treatment. However, it’s not yet clear if the increased risk is related to the cancer or if the treatment causes it.

Breast implants

In rare cases, NHL can develop in the scar tissue that forms around a breast implant. This is a rare type of T-cell lymphoma known as breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL).


Having obesity might also increase your risk of NHL and other cancers.

NHL occurs more often in:

Can some chemicals cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

Studies show that exposure to certain chemicals, including benzene, may increase your risk of developing NHL. Benzene is used in the production of plastics, resins, synthetic rubbers, and other consumer products.

There’s some evidence that exposure to pesticides used in farming, like glyphosate, organophosphorus, and carbamate, could increase your risk of developing NHL. However, these results are inconclusive, and more research is needed to understand the risk.

Does non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma run in families?

Having a family history of NHL may increase your risk of developing NHL, but experts don’t consider NHL to be hereditary.

Can I prevent non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

You can’t always prevent NHL. Many people develop NHL without having any of the above risk factors.

Limiting exposure to chemicals like benzene or taking steps to reduce your risk of infections, like HIV or H. pylori, could, in turn, lower your risk of developing NHL. Maintaining a moderate weight and eating a nutritious diet may also reduce your risk.

The exact cause of NHL isn’t known, but research has linked NHL to several risk factors. Risk factors include conditions that over-activate or weaken the immune system, like autoimmune conditions, chronic infections, and immunosuppressive therapy. Many people with NHL have no obvious risk factors.