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Symptoms of leukemia

The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on November 18, 2021.

Many people often do not experience symptoms in the early stages of certain types of leukemia, or the symptoms develop slowly. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) progress much more quickly and symptoms may worsen more quickly than with chronic leukemia, for example.

Early warning signs of leukemia

Leukemia symptoms often vary depending on the type of leukemia diagnosed. Some symptoms, like night sweats, fever, fatigue and achiness, resemble flu-like symptoms. Unlike symptoms of the flu, which generally subside as you get better, leukemia symptoms generally last longer than two weeks, and may include sudden weight loss, bone and joint pain and easy bleeding or bruising. Other early warning signs of leukemia include:

  • Fever, chills
  • Fatigue, weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent infections
  • Petechiae (small red spots under the skin)

Symptoms of leukemia may differ slightly depending on the type.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) may present symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Easy bleeding or bruising 
  • Petechiae
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite
  • Unintended weight loss

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) may also cause the above symptoms, plus some additional ones as well, including:

  • Night sweats
  • Bone pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Pain or fullness below the ribs
  • Painless lumps in the neck, stomach, groin or under the arm
  • Frequent infections

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is unlikely to cause noticeable symptoms in the early stages. However, as the disease progresses, it may cause symptoms that resemble AML and ALL, including:

  • Swelling in the lymph nodes
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pain or fullness below the ribs
  • Fever
  • Frequent infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Petechiae
  • Unintended weight loss

Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) may not cause noticeable symptoms. However, when it does cause symptoms, they may include:

  • Unintended weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats
  • Fever Pain or fullness below the left ribs

Because some conditions occur as side effects of the disease, the following may be signs of leukemia:

Anemia: A low red blood cell count. Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. This condition may contribute to weakness, fatigue or shortness of breath.

Leukopenia: A low white blood cell count. A decrease in the production of functional leukocytes (white blood cells) weakens the body's immune defense, which may make you more prone to infections.

Thrombocytopenia: A low blood platelet count. Platelets are the blood cells responsible for blood clotting. A shortage of blood platelets may lead to easy bruising or bleeding.

When leukemia results in thrombocytopenia, symptoms may include bleeding from the gums and nose. In women, thrombocytopenia can result in heavy or abnormally long menstruation.

Swollen lymph nodes: In some cases, the signs of leukemia may include noticeable swelling of the neck, armpit or groin. This occurs when leukemia has spread to the lymph nodes.

Enlarged liver or spleen: The build-up of abnormal blood cells in the liver or spleen may cause a feeling of fullness (loss of appetite) or swelling in the upper left side of the abdomen.

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When to see a doctor

Many of the symptoms of leukemia may be caused by other, more common conditions. However, if you’re experiencing any symptoms that could potentially be related to leukemia, it’s best to see a doctor who can figure out the cause. It’s particularly important to seek a doctor's guidance if symptoms persist or worsen.

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