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Symptoms of Leukemia

Leukemia is classified as acute or chronic depending on how fast symptoms appear. Symptoms for acute leukemia appear faster and may prompt a visit to the doctor. Chronic leukemia is a much slower process. Some people may notice symptoms months or years after leukemia first appears, while others may have no symptoms at all. In people with no symptoms, leukemia may be found incidentally during a routine blood test.

If you experience any symptoms, do not assume it is due to cancer. Many symptoms can be caused by other, less serious conditions. However, it is still important to discuss them with your doctor. Early detection and treatment improve outcomes for both cancer and other health conditions.

Common Symptoms

Symptoms will depend on the type of blood cells that are affected.

A drop in the number of normal white blood cells makes it harder for the body to fight infection and may lead to:

  • Persistent fever that is not specific to another condition
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Night sweats
  • Minor cuts that heal slowly—the area around the cut may become red and swollen

A drop in the number of normal red blood cells is called anemia, which decreases the amount of oxygen reaching the body's tissues. Symptoms of anemia may include:

  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Pale skin
  • Headache

A drop in the number of normal platelet cells makes it harder for blood to clot properly. Without clotting, even small injuries can lead to severe bleeding. Symptoms may include:

  • Bleeding or bruising easily
  • Nosebleeds
  • Bleeding gums
  • Tiny red spots under the skin
  • Heavy menstruation

Advanced Symptoms

Later stages of leukemia may cause:

  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes
  • Swelling of the liver or spleen
  • Puffy gums
  • Rash
  • Decreased appetite and unintended weight loss
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of the testicles
  • Nervous system problems, including:
    • Headaches
    • Nausea
    • Loss of muscle control
    • Seizures

Revision Information

  • Acute leukemia overview. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/hematology-and-oncology/leukemias/acute-leukemia-overview. Updated October 2014. Accessed February 2, 2016.

  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia/lymphoma (ALL) management. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116388/Acute-lymphoblastic-leukemia-lymphoma-ALL. Updated August 26, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2016.

  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114798/Acute-myeloid-leukemia-AML. Updated July 6, 2016. October 4, 2016.

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)/small lymphocytic leukemia (SLL). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114637/Chronic-lymphocytic-leukemia-CLL-Small-lymphocytic-leukemia-SLL. Updated March 7, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2016.

  • Chronic myeloid leukemia. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115889/Chronic-myeloid-leukemia-CML. Updated March 19, 2015. Accessed October 4, 2016.

  • Davis AS, Viera AJ, Mead MD. Leukemia: an overview for primary care. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(9):731-738.