Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is caused by a change (mutation) in the DNA of a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes, although the exact reason why this happens isn't known.

DNA gives cells a basic set of instructions, such as when to grow and reproduce. The mutation in the DNA changes these instructions, so the cells keep growing. This causes them to multiply uncontrollably.

The abnormal lymphocytes usually begin to multiply in one or more lymph nodes in a particular area of the body, such as your neck or groin. Over time, it's possible for the abnormal lymphocytes to spread into other parts of your body, such as your:

  • bone marrow
  • spleen
  • liver
  • skin
  • lungs

However, in some cases, non-Hodgkin lymphoma first develops in an organ or somewhere else outside the lymphatic system (the network of lymph vessels and glands found throughout the body).

Who's most at risk?

While the cause of the initial mutation that triggers non-Hodgkin lymphoma is unknown, a number of factors can increase your risk of developing the condition. These include:

  • having a medical condition that weakens your immune system, such as HIV
  • having medical treatment that weakens your immune system – for example, taking medication to suppress your immune system after an organ transplant
  • having an autoimmune condition (a condition caused by problems with the immune system), such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or Sjogren's syndrome
  • being previously exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus – a common virus that causes glandular fever
  • being previously exposed to the Human T-cell lymphotropic virus (HTLV)
  • having a Helicobacter pylori infection – a common bacterial infection that usually infects the lining of the stomach and small intestine
  • having received chemotherapy or radiotherapy for an earlier cancer
  • having coeliac disease – an adverse reaction to gluten that causes inflammation of the small bowel

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma isn't infectious and isn't thought to run in families, although your risk may be slightly increased if a first-degree relative (such as a parent or sibling) has had lymphoma.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can occur at any age, but most cases are diagnosed in people over 65. The condition is slightly more common in men than women.

Page last reviewed: 03/11/2015
Next review due: 01/11/2018