Signs and Symptoms

Like all blood cells, leukemia cells travel throughout the body. Depending on the number of abnormal cells and where these cells collect, patients with leukemia may have a number of symptoms, including:

  • Anemia — Children with leukemia often have fewer than normal healthy red blood cells and platelets. They lack enough red blood cells to carry oxygen through the body, which causes a condition called anemia. Children with anemia may look pale, feel weak and tired and bleed and bruise easily.

  • Recurrent Infections — Although children with leukemia may have a high number of white blood cells, these white blood cells are immature and don't fight infection. Children may experience repetitive viral or bacterial infections. They often have symptoms of infection such as fever, runny nose and cough.

  • Bone and Joint Pain — Pain in bones and joints is another common symptom of leukemia. This pain is usually a result of the bone marrow being overcrowded and "full."

  • Abdominal Distress — Abdominal pain also may be a symptom. Leukemia cells can collect in the kidney, liver and spleen, enlarging these organs. Pain in the abdomen may cause a loss of appetite and weight.

  • Swollen Lymph Nodes — Lymph nodes under the arms, in the groin, chest and neck may become swollen when leukemia cells collect in the nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that filter the blood.

  • Difficulty Breathing or Dyspnea — With T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia, leukemia cells tend to clump together around the thymus gland. This mass of cells present in the middle of the chest can cause pain and difficulty breathing. Wheezing, coughing or painful breathing requires immediate medical attention.

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

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