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Leukemia Symptoms and Signs

Leukemia is also known as blood cancer. It begins in the sections of the body that make cells for blood.  An unusual increase in the number of white blood cells is one characteristic of  Leukemia symptoms. [3]

image by Dustan Johnson

What are the signs and symptoms of Leukemia?

Leukemia symptoms vary depending on the type of leukemia. [1] The four major types of leukemia are:

  • Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML}
  • Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
  • Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

There are numerous versions of each of these types of leukemia, some of which require different treatment. This is discussed in a separate post. See Types of Leukemia.

Apart from this, the signs of leukemia also differ based on other factors like age of the infected person and the cause.  Though not all patients experience the same kind of symptoms because the signs differ for each case of leukemia. There are some similarities.

Common signs and leukemia symptoms include:

  • frequent infection,
  • fever,
  • cold,
  • chills,
  • loss of appetite and weight,
  • abdominal pain,
  • tender or swollen lymph nodes,
  • malaise and
  • frequent pain in bones and joints.


Early Symptoms of Leukemia

The first leukemia symptoms are usually non specific and vague.

The early signs of leukemia differ in each person, though most of them experience common flu-like symptoms.  In addition to those general Leukemia symptoms  noted above, the patient may have small red spots under the skin and a swollen liver or spleen. Sometimes they have bleeding gums. A normal cut or bruise is likely to have excess bleeding. The patients exhibit swollen lymph nodes, liver and spleen along with little red spots under the skin. The loss of red blood cells result in anemia. That and excessive sweating are both early signs that call for a diagnosis by a physician.

Childhood Leukemia Symptoms

  • Children with leukemia are more susceptible to infection. Often antibiotics for other routine childhood illnesses are not effective. That is because leukemia is immune to antibiotics.
  • Ordinary bruises, scratches or cuts are noticed more than usual.  In case of bleeding, the blood doesn’t stop quickly.
  • A child with pain in joints and bones may have leukemia cells that have begun to deposit in those areas.
  • Another early symptom of leukemia in children is the loss of appetite and weight-reduction for no known cause.
  • Other commonly noticed symptoms in children include vomiting, headaches and uncontrolled fits along with skin reactions. In some cases, there is an enlargement in the abdominal area because leukemia causes distention in the spleen and the liver which are located in the abdomen.

Leukemia Symptoms in Adults

Leukemia symptoms in adults are more or less similar to those noticed in children. These include the same flu-like indications of frequent infection, fever, cold and chills, and fatigue as noted above.
Pain in bones and joints is more severe than in children. There is a loss of appetite, weight loss and abdominal pain due to expansion of spleen and liver. The lymph nodes turn tender and swollen. Bruises and cuts are also noticed at the first provocation.

When leukemia spreads to the brain, the adult is likely to have blurred vision, vomiting and difficulty with balancing.


Both men and women are likely to have shortness of breath, frequent and lengthy coughing along with suffocation as leukemia symptoms.

The symptoms of leukemia are seen in places where these cells accumulate or are deposited. The characteristic symptoms will be dependent on this. Leukemia can be chronic or acute type and can be diagnosed with regular blood tests.

Leukemia can be caused by radiation exposure or due to chain smoking or exposure to excessive amounts of smoke.

Acute leukemia symptoms are headaches, vomiting, confusion, loss of muscle control, or seizures. They also affect other parts of the body like digestive tract, kidneys, lungs, heart or testes.  The precise leukemia symptoms will be dependent on which of these regions are affected.

Common Symptoms of Chronic Leukemia or Acute Leukemia

  • Swollen lymph nodes (especially in the neck or armpit) can be painful. Lymph nodes are where blood cleanses itself and it can drain the excess leukemic cells into these regions. This will result in swelling and inflammation and makes these lymph nodes prone to infections and lymphitis.
  • Fevers or night sweats
  • Frequent infections – this is because the number of increased white blood cells are immature and do not have the ability to fight bacterial and viral infections efficiently as under normal conditions. The accumulation of these immature white blood cells in the bone marrow will also result in reduction of bone marrow cells required for the synthesis of blood platelets. Hence, there will be excessive bleeding or development of pinprick bleeding (petechiae) due to a disturbance in the blood clotting process resulting in malformed blood clots, and thus one can frequently see purple patches of blood clots.
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Bleeding and bruising easily (bleeding gums, purplish patches in the skin, or tiny red spots under the skin
  • Swelling or discomfort in the abdomen causing pain that may result in loss of appetite and weight
  • Weight loss for no reason
  • Pain in the bones and joints because of cell proliferation in the bone marrow
  • Unexplained fevers
  • Blurred vision
  • Balance problems
  • Shortness of breath or dyspnea when the cells accumulate in the chest resulting in pain and difficulty in breathing.  Seek  immediate medical attention
  • Loss of muscle control and seizures
  • Anemia – there will be reduction in the number of red blood cells and platelets. As a result, there will be a reduction in the ability to carry oxygen which leads to a number of other related symptoms.

Many of these symptoms are also common for other infections too. See the doctor to get a blood test.  The good thing about leukemia is that a simple blood test can help you to diagnose and respond appropriately.

The difference between acute and chronic leukemia is in acute leukemia the symptoms are diagnosed immediately and easily.  However, in chronic leukemia the symptoms do not appear until the disease is diagnosed until the later stages of the cancer in the blood . In fact, researchers have learned that six years or more prior to a diagnosis, abnormal white blood cells may be found in blood samples of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. [5]

When the condition is not visible in a normal blood smear test, it can occur silently within the bone marrow. At a later stage it will be noticeable as cancer. That describes chronic leukemia.

Now let us see more in detail about the different types of leukemia and its associated symptoms :

Acute Leukemia Symptoms

Acute Leukemia will be of two types – acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Both of the acute types of leukemia, ALL and AML, are more aggressive and progress faster than the other types. [6]

Most of acute leukemia symptoms are caused by low levels of normal blood cells. It happens when there is an overcrowding of the blood-forming bone marrow by leukemia cells.

Acute leukemia spreads rapidly among  primitive cells making these blood cells incapable of carrying out normal functions. This is why acute leukemia symptoms are seen at the earlier stages. Hence, most of the common signs of leukemia are seen in patients with acute leukemia including fatigue, malaise, abnormal bleeding, abdominal pain, bone or joint pains, weakness, excessive bruising and reduced exercise tolerance.

Chronic Leukemia Symptoms

Chronic Leukemia also has two types- chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and chronic myeloid leukemia (CLM).

Chronic leukemia symptoms develop slowly unlike acute forms of cancer. Chronic leukemia  symptoms often resemble various less serious medical conditions. Some of the signs noticed are fatigue, fever, unexplained weight loss and night sweats. Other symptoms include heightened rates of infection, easy bruising and severe bleeding.

The spleen enlarges as the abnormal white blood cells  accumulate causing splenomegaly. This results in abdominal discomfort and the patient feels full after eating even small amounts of food.

Chronic leukemia causes leucostatis due to abnormally high white blood cell levels resulting in headaches, confusion and dizziness. This can also affect the lungs and heart.

Insufficient amounts of platelets lead to easy bruising and bleeding because platelets are responsible for clotting blood.

Another symptom of chronic leukemia is the development of hypogammaglobulinemia which affects the immune system. In this, the level of gamma globulin antibodies decreases and thus reduces the effectiveness of the body to the fight against infection.

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia Symptoms

In patients suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia symptoms you are likely to see these signs at a later stage:

High white blood cell level in blood and bone marrow, night sweats, fever, headache, fatigue , shortness of blood, pale skin, easy bruising, infection, bleeding, bone and joint pains, fever, enlarged spleen and bleeding problems.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Symptoms

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is seen when the lymphocytes lose their normal ability to die and start accumulating. The only symptoms most patients have at this time is an increase

Patients notice fatigue or enlargement of lymph nodes and fullness in the abdomen due to an enlarged spleen.

When chronic lymphocytic leukemia reaches an advanced level, it can cause anemia due to low blood counts. The patient’s risk of infection increases due to low production of antibodies that help fight bacteria.

Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia Symptoms

Early chronic myelogenous leukemia symptoms are fatigue, fever, excessive sweating and fullness in the abdomen due to an enlarged spleen. In the later stages, the blood count decreases considerably and the patient experiences high fever along with bone and joint pains. The enlargement of the spleen turns very painful.

Chronic leukemia symptoms  occur only in the later stage after the onset of cancer in the blood and are not easily diagnosable until you go for a check-up of some infection that will require blood tests. Once the doctor suspects leukemia, he/she will continuously check for leukemic symptoms with continuous blood tests.


After studying the symptoms observed in various types of cancers and in different age groups, we can deduce that most of these are quite similar to each other. Few symptoms are more severe in one case than other. These symptoms are quite common and can be mistaken for other illnesses. That is precisely why a doctor’s advice and proper diagnosis becomes necessary to fight leukemia.[4]

Treatment for Leukemia

Throughout all of this discussion of the different types of leukemia that exist in children and adults, let us not forget that it can be treated. See Treatments for Leukemia.


  1. http://www.webmd.com/cancer/tc/leukemia-symptoms
  2. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/leukemia/DS00351/DSECTION=symptoms
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leukimia
  4.  http://lymphoma.about.com/od/symptoms/qt/Leukemia-Signs-And-Symptoms.htm
  5. http://nihseniorhealth.gov/leukemia/symptomsanddiagnosis/01.html
  6. http://www.cancercenter.com/leukemia/leukemia-symptoms.cfm


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2 Responses to “Leukemia Symptoms and Signs”

  1. Akhil Jain 18. Jul, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    I must say a very helpful one… a perfect article covering everything in detail about leukemia… wud luv to see more such articles from u Dr.sivaraman….

  2. Suresh 19. Apr, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    Dr. Sivaraman, your article was of absolute help to understand what Leukemia is.. Thank you