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Leukaemia: Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is cancer of the blood causing too many white blood cells to be produced and affecting the bone marrow.

Around 8,257 are diagnosed with leukaemia each year in the UK.

The main types of leukaemia are acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL).

Symptoms of leukaemia: How do I know if I have leukaemia?

Many types of leukaemia produce no obvious symptoms in the early stages. Eventually, symptoms might include any of the following:

  • Anaemia and related symptoms, such as fatigue, pallor and a general feeling of illness.
  • A tendency to bruise or bleed easily, including bleeding from the gums or nose, or blood in the stool or urine.
  • Susceptibility to infections such as sore throat or bronchial pneumonia, which may be accompanied by headache, low-grade temperature, mouth sores or skin rash.
  • Swollen lymph nodes, typically in the throat, armpits or groin.
  • Loss of appetite and weight.
  • Discomfort under the left lower ribs (caused by a swollen spleen).
  • In advanced stages, symptoms may include sudden high temperature, confusion, seizures, inability to talk or move limbs, and an altered state of consciousness.

Blood cells

Blood has three types of cells: white cells fight infection, red cells carry oxygen and platelets help to clot, all suspended in its liquid plasma. Every day, hundreds of billions of new blood cells are produced in the bone marrow - most of them red cells. In people with leukaemia, however, the body starts producing more white cells than it needs. Many of the extra white cells do not mature normally, yet they tend to live well beyond their normal life span.

Despite their vast numbers, these leukaemic cells are unable to fight infection the way normal white blood cells do. As they accumulate, they interfere with vital organ functions, including the production of healthy blood cells. Eventually the body does not have enough red cells to supply oxygen, enough platelets to ensure proper clotting, or enough normal white cells to fight infection, making people with leukaemia anaemic and susceptible to bruising, bleeding and infection.

Cases of leukaemia are classified as acute or chronic. Cancer cells in acute leukaemias start multiplying before they develop beyond their immature stage. 

Chronic leukaemias progress more slowly, with cancer cells developing to full maturity. Leukaemias are further classified according to the type of white blood cell involved. Under a microscope, two main types of white blood cells are easily distinguishable: Myeloid cells contain tiny particles or granules; lymphoid cells usually do not.

What causes leukaemia?

Around 9% of leukaemia cases in the UK are caused by radiation exposure.

Around 6% of cases are linked to smoking.

The risk of leukaemia is increased for people whose jobs involve working with the chemicals benzene and formaldehyde and those who work in the rubber industry.

Children with Down’s Syndrome are also at greater risk of developing leukaemia.

Seek medical advice if:

  • You experience any of the symptoms listed above and cannot readily explain their occurrence.
  • You experience unexplained bleeding, high temperature or a seizure. You may need emergency treatment for acute leukaemia.
  • You are in remission from leukaemia and notice signs of recurrence, such as infection or easy bleeding. You should have a follow-up examination.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on December 05, 2013

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