Signs and Symptoms of Leukemia

young girl with leukemia symptoms seeing doctor

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Leukemia is a general term for cancers that begin in the blood cells. The condition affects the bone marrow which produces white blood cells, red blood cells, and blood platelets (or, cells that create clots to stop bleeding). When cancer cells rapidly grow in the bone marrow, they crowd out the healthy cells, causing you to have low levels of healthy blood cells. 

These low levels of healthy blood cells cause most leukemia symptoms, including fatigue, fevers, night sweats, weight loss, bruising, and bleeding. However, there are different types of leukemia which are categorized by which type of blood cell they affect and how quickly the cancer spreads. Your symptoms can depend on which of your blood cell levels are most affected. 

Leukemia is most common in people over the age of 55 and in children younger than 15 years old. While some types of leukemia are more curable than others, the condition overall is treatable—and recognizing the symptoms in the early stages can improve symptoms and treatment outcomes.

Common Symptoms 

While symptoms of leukemia can vary based on which type of leukemia you have, generally all types of leukemia share some common symptoms. These symptoms include:

These symptoms appear with most types of leukemia. The most common types of leukemia include:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)
  • Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML)

Keep in mind: many common symptoms of leukemia are rather vague and could be caused by other, less serious conditions. Having these symptoms does not guarantee that you have cancer. But, it's important to be mindful of these symptoms, especially if you aren't able to figure out what's causing your symptoms to occur.

Symptoms of Low Red Blood Cells

All types of leukemia can lead to a low red blood cell count. As a result, you can develop a condition called anemia, which occurs when there are not enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. Having a low count causes several symptoms, including:

Symptoms of Low White Blood Cells

When leukemia causes a lack of healthy white blood cells, it is known as leukopenia. White blood cells are part of the immune system and their function is to help your body fight infections and illnesses. If your blood tests show low levels of white blood cells, it's common to experience symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Chills
  • Frequent infections
  • Body aches and joint pain
  • Cuts or sores on the skin

Symptoms of Low Platelets 

Platelets are blood cells that are located in the blood and spleen. They clot the blood and prevent bleeding. A low platelet count, known as thrombocytopenia, causes various bleeding symptoms, such as:

Additional Symptoms

A lack of healthy blood cells and an overgrowth of cancer cells can also affect other areas of the body. As a result, you may experience symptoms that are specific to certain body parts. The symptoms include:

  • Spleen: When cancer cells build up in the spleen, they cause the spleen to become enlarged (a condition known as splenomegaly). This leads to abdominal swelling and stomach pain.
  • Lymph nodes: Swollen lymph nodes feel like lumps just below the skin. They are usually painless and tend to occur when your body is experiencing an illness or infection.
  • Bones, joints, and muscles: When leukemia cells grow near the surface of the bones or joints, it may be common to experience bone pain, joint stiffness, and muscle tenderness.

While rare, it is possible for leukemia cells to spread to other areas of the body, including:

  • Brain and spinal cord: Cancer cells in the brain or spinal cord cause several symptoms including headaches, weakness, seizures, nausea and vomiting, numbness, balance problems, and blurry vision.
  • Chest: When cancer cells grow in the chest, it is possible to experience shortness of breath and a persistent cough.
  • Skin: If your condition begins to affect your skin, you might be prone to developing redness, skin discoloration, or rashes.

Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

The superior vena cava (SVC) is a large vein that carries blood from your head and arms back to the heart. SVC syndrome is a rare complication of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).

The condition occurs when the thymus gland (a gland between your lungs that makes white blood cells) becomes swollen and presses on the SVC. When this happens, you can have symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and swelling in the face, neck, upper chest, and arms. 

It's important to note that SVC syndrome is serious and requires immediate treatment, as the condition can be life-threatening.


Leukostasis is a rare complication of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) which occurs when there is a high number of leukemia cells in your bloodstream. Cancer cells, known as blasts, are bigger than normal blood cells. They cannot always fit easily through the blood vessels. When this happens, blasts clog up the blood vessels and block normal red blood cells from reaching body tissues and organs. 

If you develop leukostasis, you may have symptoms such as:

Symptoms in Children

Leukemia is most common among children under the age of 15. Children with leukemia experience many of the same symptoms as adults with leukemia. Symptoms of childhood leukemia include:

  • Fatigue 
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness 
  • Pale skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling cold
  • Frequent infections
  • Fever 
  • Bruising
  • Bleeding 
  • Nosebleeds
  • Bleeding gums 
  • Bone pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Coughing 
  • Facial swelling
  • Skin rashes 

It's important to remember that many symptoms of childhood leukemia can mimic symptoms of other, less serious conditions. Most children with these symptoms do not have cancer. However, these symptoms can still be a cause for concern so it's a good practice to talk with your child's healthcare provider if symptoms aren't improving.

When to See a Healthcare Provider 

Many leukemia symptoms can mirror the symptoms of other conditions. It can sometimes be challenging to know when to contact your healthcare provider if you're displaying symptoms of leukemia—often because symptoms can be vague and due to other conditions.

However, if you may be at an increased risk for leukemia or have symptoms that aren't improving, reach out to your healthcare provider. Symptoms such as easy bruising and bleeding, unintentional weight loss, a loss of appetite, and a fever with no illness should prompt you to seek care immediately.

While experiencing these symptoms or knowing you may have a possibility of developing cancer can be scary, it's important to see your healthcare provider as soon as you can. Don't let your fear refrain you from getting an early diagnosis and starting treatment sooner, if needed.

A Quick Review 

Leukemia is a type of cancer that starts and grows in the blood cells. Most symptoms of leukemia are caused by a lack of healthy blood cells, including low levels of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.

While leukemia can develop in anyone, the condition is most common among people over the age of 55 and below the age of 15. Common symptoms of leukemia include fatigue, fever, night sweats, weight loss, loss of appetite, and easy bruising or bleeding.

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8 Sources uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Cancer Society. Leukemia.

  3. National Cancer Institute. Leukemia.

  4. Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Leukemia.

  5. Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Leukemia symptoms.

  6. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).

  7. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

  8. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of childhood leukemia.

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