Leukemia Rashes: Why These Skin Problems Occur and What They Look Like

It's always best to see a healthcare provider for any unexplained rash, especially if you have other symptoms.

What is Leukemia Rash?
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People get rashes for many reasons. If you apply a new moisturizer that contains an irritating ingredient, touch poison ivy, or are recovering from a virus, you might very well end up with a rash. Even stress can cause a rash. In rare cases, however, a rash may be a sign of a handful of types of cancer—leukemia being one of them, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center.

What Is a Leukemia Rash?

There is a range of skin symptoms that can occur due to leukemia, a type of blood cancer that starts in the bone marrow, according to MedlinePlus. Some people might notice tiny red spots on their arms or legs, while others may find bumpy growths, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Leukemia rashes can also occur as a result of some treatments, like chemotherapy.

Still, most people with leukemia don't get a rash, said Felipe Samaniego, MD, professor in the Department of Lymphoma/Myeloma, Division of Cancer Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Most leukemia symptoms include bruising easily, fever, and weight loss, according to MedlinePlus. But leukemia rashes do occasionally crop up in people with this type of cancer.

What Are the Types of Leukemia Rash?

There are a few different types of leukemia rashes that vary in appearance. The disease itself can cause a leukemia rash, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, but so can some cancer treatments and other infections.

The cause of leukemia rashes isn't always clear, but it can be one manifestation of the disease, said Dr. Samaniego. The most likely explanation for a leukemia rash ties back to the underlying problem in this type of blood cancer, which is an overproduction of abnormal white blood cells, according to MedlinePlus.

Petechiae

Often the abundance of white blood cells impedes the bone marrow's ability to make enough red blood cells and platelets (the latter of which are essential for normal blood clotting), according to the American Society of Hematology. If your platelet count is low, you may bleed and bruise more easily, and broken capillaries under your skin can cause petechiae, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Petechiae isn't technically a rash, but it is a skin disorder that occurs due to leukemia. Petechiae will appear as tiny bruises on the feet, arms, legs, or hands. This is caused by the breakdown of capillaries, which are small blood vessels, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Sweet Syndrome

In other instances, someone can develop a leukemia rash if they have already been diagnosed with leukemia and are being treated with a granulocyte-colony stimulating factor drug. According to the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD), that medication can lead to a reaction called Sweet syndrome, which can cause a rash of tender red and bluish-red bumps or lesions to develop suddenly on the body.

Leukemia Cutis

Leukemia cutis is a skin disorder that occurs due to leukemia. According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, this occurs when white blood cells leave the blood or bone marrow and infiltrate the skin, causing bumps along the skin. Roughly 5%-10% of people with leukemia experience this skin disorder.

Blastic Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cell Neoplasm (BPDCN)

Blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm (BPDCN) is a type of leukemia that typically presents as skin lesions. According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, this rare disease only affects 500 to 1,000 Americans every year.

Infection

The most common skin-related symptom in people with leukemia is infection. According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the infection could be fungal, bacterial, or viral and may need medication to treat.

Rash Due to Treatment

Cancer treatment—including chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy—can cause skin issues in people with leukemia. According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the skin may break down or there may be an inflammatory reaction that causes skin issues.

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What Is the Treatment?

Treatment for a leukemia rash will depend on what your healthcare provider thinks is causing it. If you haven't been diagnosed with leukemia and aren't sure what's causing a mysterious rash, consult a dermatologist.

If the leukemia rash is a result of cancer cells spreading to the skin, the best fix is to treat the cancer itself (often with chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center). "You treat the cancer and the rash goes away," said Dr. Samaniego.

Is a Rash a Sign of Leukemia?

Most of the time, rashes have nothing to do with leukemia, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. If you have a skin condition that looks like a leukemia rash and don't know why, there's no reason to assume it means you have cancer—especially if you don't have any other leukemia symptoms. With that said, you shouldn't ignore it: See a healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • The rash has spread all over your body (especially if it spreads quickly).
  • The rash is painful.
  • The rash has started to blister.
  • The rash is swollen and warm to the touch.
  • You have a fever with the rash.

Summary

If you have reason to believe you have a leukemia rash, talk to your healthcare provider. A simple blood test can determine if leukemia is a possibility and if other tests, or a referral to an oncologist, is in order.

If you've been diagnosed with blood cancer and developed a leukemia rash, notify your oncologist right away. Your treatment regimen might need to be tweaked.

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