Signs and symptoms of leukemia (2023)

LeukemiaSymptoms can be very subtle, with fatigue, unintentional weight loss, excessive bleeding (such asfrequent nosebleeds) and frequent infections, to name a few symptoms.

These symptoms can be due to a wide range of causes, but together they could indicate one of the types of leukemia, a group of blood-related cancers that affect people of all ages. The symptoms may suggest that further evaluation is needed to reach any diagnosis.

This article looks at the symptoms of leukemia in children and adults. It introduces some types of leukemia and how they are diagnosed, along with information about when you may need to see a health professional.

Signs and symptoms of leukemia (1)

Common symptoms of leukemia

The symptoms of leukemia in adults and children are similar. The most common symptoms are:

  • Fatigue
  • frequent infections
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • unexplained fevers
  • night sweating
  • Bruising and excessive bleeding
  • Dor abdominal
  • Bone and joint pain
  • Headaches and other neurological symptoms
  • unintentional weight loss

Because many of these symptoms are vague and nonspecific, people tend to explain them away by saying they feel like they're coming down with a cold or haven't been feeling well lately.

What are the symptoms of leukemia in children?

The symptoms of leukemia can be difficult to detect in young children, who can only communicate by crying. Other signs may be a lack of appetite, refusing to eat, or limping due to bone or joint pain.

Some of the symptoms are easier to understand in the context of the effect leukemia has on specific blood cells produced by the bone marrow, since many of the signs are related to an excess or deficiency of these cells.

in leukemia affectswhite blood cells, but it also frequently affects other cells produced by the bone marrow, interfering with their production or displacing the bone marrow. Cells produced by the bone marrow include:

  • Red blood cells (erythrocytes): Red blood cells carry oxygen to the tissues of the body. A low red blood cell count is known as anemia.
  • White blood cells (leukocytes): White blood cells fight infections caused by organisms such as bacteria and viruses. A low white blood cell count is reportedlike leukopenia. a type of leukocyteneutrophils, are particularly important in fighting bacteria that cause infections, such as pneumonia. Neutrophil deficiency is calledneutropenia.
  • platelets:plateletsor thrombocytes are the cells produced by the bone marrow that are responsible for blood clotting. A low platelet count is known asthrombocytopenia.


Excessive tiredness is a very common symptom of leukemia. While there are many causes of fatigue, cancer fatigue tends to be more dramatic than the common tiredness people feel when they don't sleep. The kind ofcancer-associated fatigueit often does not improve with a good night's rest and interferes with normal daily activities.

Cancer can cause fatigue in different ways. The anemia associated with leukemia reduces oxygen to cells and tissues, leading to shortness of breath and weakness. Cancer can also decrease the production of serotonin and tryptophan, essential for physical and mental functioning.

Frequent infections

Even when present in normal or increased amounts, cancerous (leukemia) white blood cells may not be able to adequately help your body fight the infection. In addition, leukemia cells can crowd out other types of white blood cells in the bone marrow, preventing the body from ensuring an adequate supply.

As a result, people affected by leukemia are often very prone to developing infections. Common sites of infection include the mouth and throat, skin, lungs, urinary tract or bladder, and the area around the anus.

enlarged lymph nodes

Sometimes leukemia cells can collect in the lymph nodes and cause them to become swollen and tender.People may feel abnormally enlarged lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy) in the armpit (axillary lymph nodes), neck (cervical lymph nodes) or groin.

Lymph nodes that cannot be directly felt can also cause symptoms. For example, enlarged lymph nodes in the chest (such asmediastinal lymph nodes) cannot be felt, but may cause shortness of breath, wheezing, or coughing.

Excessive bruising or bleeding

When leukemia cells accumulate in the bone marrow, it can cause a decrease in the production of platelets, known as thrombocytopenia. Platelets are actually cell fragments that clump together to slow or stop bleeding when a blood vessel is injured.

(Video) Signs and Symptoms of Leukemia in Adults

Thrombocytopenia associated with leukemia can take many forms, including easy bruising, red spots on the skin (petechiaeor purple), heavy periods, nosebleeds, bleeding gums,hematuria(blood in the urine) and hematochezia (blood in the stool).

unexplained fevers

Fevers with no obvious source, such as an infection, can be a symptom of any type of cancer, but especially blood-related cancers, such as leukemia. A fever of unknown origin is defined as a fever over 101 degrees that occurs frequently or lasts for more than three weeks without an obvious explanation.

Fevers associated with leukemia can have many possible causes, including underlying infections. In some cases, the leukemia cells themselves can cause the body to release chemicals that stimulate the brain to increase body temperature.

night sweating

Night sweats can be a symptom of cancer, especially blood-related cancers like leukemia.Unlike the common hot flashes or sweating associated with menopause, leukemia-related night sweats are often dramatic.

night sweatingthey are normally described as "soaking", soaking the clothes and bedding on the mattress below. Although common at night, night sweats can also occur during the day and are never considered normal.

Dor abdominal

Abnormal white blood cells can accumulate in the liver and spleen, causing the abdomen to become swollen and uncomfortable. This type of bloating can also decrease your appetite or make you feel full at the start of a meal. Involvement of the spleen usually causes pain in the upper left part of the abdomen, while involvement of the liver usually causes pain in the upper right part of the abdomen.

Bone and joint pain

Bone and joint pain is most common in areas where there is a lot of bone marrow, such as the pelvis (hip) or breastbone (breastbone). This is caused by crowding of the marrow with excessive amounts of abnormal white blood cells. In children, parents may notice that the child limps or does not walk normally, without any type of injury that explains the symptom.

Headaches and other neurological symptoms

Headaches and other neurological symptoms, such as seizures, dizziness, visual changes, nausea, and vomiting, can occur when leukemia cells invade the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid).

unintentional weight loss

Unexplained weight loss is a classic sign of all cancers and usually suggests a more advanced malignancy. In some cases, persistent fatigue and unintentional weight loss are the symptoms that lead some people to seek a diagnosis.

Unexplained weight loss is defined as losing 5% or more of your body weight over a period of six to 12 months. The symptom is more common in chronic leukemias than in acute leukemias.

Leukemia symptoms by type

While the above symptoms can be found with virtually any type of leukemia, there are some symptoms that are more common in different types of the disease.

Acute leukemias are characterized byimmature white blood cellsthat don't work properly, leading to a more visible range of symptoms. In chronic leukemias, the cells can function to a certain extent and as such may show less obvious symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of leukemia (2)

Symptoms related to different subtypes of leukemia include:

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

the symptoms ofacute lymphocytic leukemiathey often develop rapidly over the course of days or a few weeks. If ALL spreads to the central nervous system, symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, and sometimes seizures may occur.When ALL spreads to the chest, shortness of breath and coughing can occur.

(Video) Signs and Symptoms of blood cancer

With T-cell ALL, the enlargement of the thymus gland, which is located behind the breastbone and in front of the trachea, can compress the trachea and cause difficulty breathing.

Compression of the large vein that returns blood from the upper body to the heart (the superior vena cava) can cause symptoms calledsuperior vena cava syndrome. This can include marked swelling of the face, neck, upper arms, and upper chest.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

The first symptom ofChronic lymphocytic leukemiaThey are usually painless, enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, and groin. Other symptoms can come on very gradually and can include what are known as "B symptoms", which include fever, chills, night sweats, and weight loss.

In about 5% of CLL diagnoses, the disease will progress to an aggressive lymphoma known asRichter's Syndrome, characterized by generalized lymphadenopathy.

Aguda myeloid leukemia (AML)

acute myelogenous leukemia, like EVERYTHING, often comes on quickly with the symptoms discussed above. AML is somewhat unique in that immature white blood cells (blast cells) can clog blood vessels, called leukostasis. This can cause symptoms similar to those of a stroke with visual changes or weakness on one side of the body.

greenish in colorskin rashso-called chloromas can occur due to the spread of AML cells under the skin. A condition calledcandy syndromeit can also happen.This is characterized by recurrent fevers and accumulation of white blood cells in the dermal layer of the skin, resulting in painful skin lesions spread over the head, arms, neck, and chest.

Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia

Acute promyelocytic leukemiaaccounts for about 10% of AML cases and is distinguished by the fact that the most prominent symptoms often involve excessive bleedingmiexcessive blood clotting.

This can include nosebleeds, heavy bleeding and bruising, but also pain and swelling in the legs and calves (due to deep vein thrombosis) and the sudden onset of chest pain and shortness of breath that can accompany pulmonary embolism. (blood clots that break off in the legs and travel to the lungs).

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)

Chronic myeloid leukemiait is most often suspected before any symptoms occur when the results of a complete blood count (CBC) are abnormal. Even after diagnosis, people with chronic myeloid leukemia may have few or no symptoms for months or years before the leukemia cells begin to grow more rapidly and manifest themselves.

Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML)

chronic myelomonocytic leukemiait often affects many parts of the body, not just the bone marrow. Accumulation of monocytes in the spleen leads to an enlargement (splenomegaly) which can cause left upper abdominal pain and fullness when eating.

The buildup of monocytes can cause an enlarged liver (hepatomegaly), which also causes pain in the upper right part of the abdomen.


There are many possible complications of leukemia, several of which are related to deficiencies in different types of white blood cells. Some of the most common concerns include:

severe infections

A reduced level of white blood cells reduces the body's ability to fight infection, and even relatively minor infections can become fatal.

Infections such as urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and skin infections can progress rapidly tosepsis and septic shock(a generalized infection often accompanied by a drop in blood pressure and reduced level of consciousness).

During leukemia treatment, suppression of the immune system can allow certain microorganisms to thrive and become fatal, including the varicella virus (Herpes zoster),cytomegalovirus(CMV) from Aspergillus.

severe bleeding

Although bleeding is common when the platelet count is low, bleeding in certain areas of the body can be fatal. Such instances include:

  • intracranial hemorrhage: Bleeding in the brain can result in a rapid onset of confusion or loss of consciousness.
  • lung hemorrhage: Bleeding from the lungs can result in severe shortness of breath and coughing up blood.
  • gastrointestinal bleeding: Bleeding in the stomach and/or intestines can cause vomiting with large amounts of blood and a rapid drop in blood pressure.

What are the risk factors for leukemia?

Six of the most common risk factors for leukemia are:

  • Family history of leukemia
  • Certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome and Fanconi anemia
  • previous radiotherapy
  • Prior chemotherapy, especially alkylating agents and topoisomerase inhibitors
  • Exposure to industrial chemicals such as benzene.
  • Smoking, which is particularly a risk for acute AML
(Video) Signs and symptoms of leukaemia

When to see a doctor

It's important to see a doctor if you have any of the above symptoms or if you just don't feel well. Trust your intuition. Because many symptoms of leukemia are nonspecific, they can also be signs of another serious condition.

Some symptoms, such as new-onset severe headaches, other neurological symptoms, or profuse night sweats, need to be treated immediately.

Others, such as swollen lymph nodes in the neck, should be evaluated if they persist, even if you think there is a logical explanation. Because acute lymphocytic leukemia usually has no symptoms at first, it's also important to see a doctor for regular blood and physical exams.

frequent questions

  • What causes leukemia?

    Leukemia is caused by multiple genetic mutations that lead to uncontrolled growth of cells in the bone marrow. As a result, malignant blood cells crowd out healthy cells, causing signs and symptoms of leukemia. The exact reason why this happens is unknown.

    Know more:Causes and risk factors of leukemia

  • How is leukemia diagnosed?

    A complete blood count (CBC) shows changes in the blood cells, and a physical exam reveals anemia, enlarged lymph nodes, and a swollen liver or spleen. A bone marrow biopsy is needed to visualize the tissues under the microscope and definitelydiagnose leukemia.

    Know more:Bone Marrow Biopsy: Purpose and Results

  • Can leukemia be cured?

    (Video) LEUKEMIA, Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment.

    There is currently no cure for leukemia, but treatments, including the latestimmunotherapiesmiCAR-T cell therapyit can keep the disease in remission and prevent it from coming back. For example, nearly 90% of adults living with ALL achieve long-term disease-free remission.

    Know more:What is cancer remission?

  • Can leukemia be prevented?

    There is no sure way to prevent leukemia, but avoiding smoke and exposure to industrial benzene can help.Knowing your risk factors for leukemia will help you respond quickly if early signs and symptoms develop.

    Know more:Prevent or reduce the risk of leukemia

  • What can be confused with leukemia?

    The symptoms of leukemia are similar to many conditions. Respiratory problems can also be asthma or heart problems; weight loss can be a symptom of gallbladder disease or colorectal cancer.See your doctor for a diagnosis if in doubt.

    Know more:Causes of unintentional weight loss

Discussion Guide for Leukemia Clinicians

Get our printable guide to your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

(Video) Leukaemia: What are the signs and symptoms? | NHS

Signs and symptoms of leukemia (3)

Download pdf


1. Signs and Symptoms of Pediatric Leukemia
(Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)
2. How is Leukemia Diagnosed?
(Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center)
3. Cancer Symptoms in Young Adults
(Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center)
4. Childhood Cancer: Signs and Symptoms
(Boston Children's Hospital)
5. What are the Symptoms of Childhood Cancer?
(Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center)
6. Four-Year-Old Fights Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia
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