11 Leukemia Symptoms People Often Overlook

Leukemia symptoms may be due to minor conditions, but it is important to consult a specialist when in doubt so as to obtain an early diagnosis.
11 Leukemia Symptoms People Often Overlook
José Gerardo Rosciano Paganelli

Reviewed and approved by the doctor José Gerardo Rosciano Paganelli.

Last update: 15 December, 2022

Leukemia symptoms are the result of a type of cancer of the same name that affects the blood-forming tissues in your body. It directly involves the white blood cells, as it’s characterized by their inadequate formation. Here are some of the symptoms of leukemia people often overlook.

White blood cells are an important part of the body’s defense mechanisms. They grow and divide in an organized fashion as the body needs them. However, the bone marrow produces them abnormally in those with leukemia. However, they’re defective and thus, cannot fulfill their function of protecting the body — even though their production increases.

As the cancer advances, complications occur in the production of red blood cells or platelets. It’s in that phase where anemia can develop, and bleeding becomes serious. In addition, the risk of contracting other types of infections also increases.

The most worrisome thing is that many people mistake leukemia symptoms for something else. Because of this, it makes it difficult to diagnose early. This is why we’d like to share a list of the 11 possible leukemia symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.

11 Leukemia Symptoms People Often Overlook

1. Leukemia symptoms: purple or red spots on your skin

A person with a rash.

Reddish or purple spots that appear in clusters on the chest, arms, or back are known in the medical world as petechiae.

So says this study conducted by the Hospital Ángeles del Pedregal in Mexico.. They occur when the blood coagulates and doesn’t flow properly, and are often confused with a skin rash.

A recent study showed that autoimmune thrombocytopenia is a common complication of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The main characteristic is a decrease in the number of platelets in the blood, which manifests as petechiae.

2. Bone or joint pain

Many illnesses can lead to bone and joint pain. However, in the case of leukemia, the pain is the result of the accumulation of defective white blood cells. Patients feel a sharp pain or dull ache that varies in severity depending on the affected area.

Despite being a symptom with different etiological origins, there are cases of leukemia in children that start with this particular symptom according to some research. In this respect, bone or joint pain is one of the symptoms of leukemia you shouldn’t overlook.

3. Headaches

A woman with a headache.

Headaches are one of the most ignored leukemia symptoms. It’s common in cases of acute leukemia, and often severe and long-lasting.

Headaches occur because there’s a restriction in the blood flow towards the brain and spinal cord. It’s similar to when blood vessels contract in the case of migraines.

4. Swollen glands

When leukemia compromises white and red blood cell production, the body’s ability to respond to infections weakens. Consequently, this alters the inflammatory processes and leads to swollen glands and lymph nodes or small, painless blue or purple lumps.

According to a publication in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, adenopathy is present in up to 41% of children with leukemia. This is quite an important fact considering that leukemia is the most frequent cancer in childhood. Thus, it’s important to be alert for continuous or persistent swelling of the lymph nodes.

5. Weakness and tiredness

Weakness, one of the most common leukemia symptoms.

Leukemia isn’t the first thing to come to mind when you feel weak or tired. However, these signs aren’t to be taken lightly because they’re also symptoms of the illness.

The decrease in healthy red blood cells affects the body’s ability to transport oxygen and nutrients, leading to anemia and chronic fatigue.

6. Unusual bleeding

All unusual and unexplained bleeding can be a clear sign of leukemia, as suggested by this investigation by Gerencia de Atención Integrada de Albacete in Spain. It affects the body’s ability to transport oxygen and nutrients, which results in anemia and chronic fatigue.

Profuse and unexplained nasal bleeding is one of the most common manifestations. However, this symptom is also evident after skin injury, which will bleed profusely and take longer to heal.

7. Fevers and frequent infections

Fever is one of the leukemia symptoms.

Any kind of leukemia weakens the immune system’s ability to respond to bacteria that can cause infections. As a result, leukemia patients experience continuous episodes of fever and respiratory infections such as the flu.

The main reason is cancerous blood cells deter white blood cells fight against viruses and bacteria.

Fever may also be accompanied by hyperhidrosis or profuse sweating with nocturnal predominance. People may sweat profusely even when at rest. Thus, hyperhidrosis is another often overlooked symptom of leukemia.

8. Inexplicable weight loss

Similar to what happens in other cases of cancer, leukemia patients can lose weight at alarming rates and for no apparent reason, according to this study carried out by Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana de México. It can also be a side-effect of the extreme fatigue and loss of appetite that patients might also experience.

We recommend that you read 5 Types of Rare Cancers

9. Loss of breath

Fatigue is one of the leukemia symptoms.

Loss of breath or difficulty breathing results from the decreased oxygenation in cells, due to the interference in blood flow. Some people experience an inability to catch their breath, while others might feel like they’re not able to breathe fully.

Leukemia can also enlarge the thymus, a small gland in the chest. This gland is right in front of the windpipe, so it can compress the windpipe and cause shortness of breath as it enlarges.

10. Abdominal pain or swelling

When leukemia spreads, it can produce swelling in the liver or spleen. As a result, you may get recurring abdominal pain or the feeling of fullness in the area below the rib cage. In fact, liver inflammation occurs in up to 64% of children with the disease according to the Archives of Disease in Childhood study cited.

In turn, enlargement of the spleen is present in up to 61% of children, so these two manifestations are the most frequent. Some patients even feel a slight pain in the lower back or experience nausea, vomiting and alterations in intestinal activity.

11. Paleness is one of the most common leukemia symptoms

Pale skin and mucous membranes are generally due to anemia or a decrease of red blood cells in the bloodstream. The decrease of these cells reduces the oxygenation of the tissues, which gives the skin and mucous membranes that whitish tone.

This symptom is much more common and evident in childhood  and observed in up to 54% of children according to the Archives of Disease in Childhood. Thus, skin pallor shouldn’t be overlooked under any circumstances, especially if other symptoms of leukemia are present.

Consulting a specialist about any of these leukemia symptoms is crucial

Treatment for leukemia has advanced in recent years but much of its success depends on early detection.

This is why it’s paramount to attend to any of the above symptoms of leukemia, even though they may seem like they’re no big deal. Consult your doctor if you have any of them.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Chennamadhavuni A, Lyengar V, Mukkamalla SKR, et al. Leukemia. [Updated 2022 Nov 23]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560490/
  • Lu J, Zhang Y, Wang S, Bi Y, Huang T, Luo X, Cai YD. Analysis of Four Types of Leukemia Using Gene Ontology Term and Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes Pathway Enrichment Scores. Comb Chem High Throughput Screen. 2020;23(4):295-303. doi: 10.2174/1386207322666181231151900. PMID: 30599106.
  • Grunwald MR, McDonnell MH, Induru R, Gerber JM. Cutaneous manifestations in leukemia patients. Semin Oncol. 2016 Jun;43(3):359-65. doi: 10.1053/j.seminoncol.2016.02.020. Epub 2016 Feb 23. PMID: 27178689.
  • Bone and Joint Pain – Part 1. (2018). Leukaemia Care. Available in https://www.leukaemiacare.org.uk/support-and-information/latest-from-leukaemia-care/blog/bone-and-joint-pain-part-1/
  • Kubota H, Saida S, Kouzuki K, Hamabata T, Daifu T, Kato I, Umeda K, Hiramatsu H, Nishikomori R, Heike T, Okamoto T, Adachi S. [Pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia presenting with bone and joint pain]. Rinsho Ketsueki. 2018;59(2):167-173. Japanese. doi: 10.11406/rinketsu.59.167. PMID: 29515068.
  • Symptoms of chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). (n.d.). Cancer Research UK. Available in https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/chronic-myeloid-leukaemia-cml/symptoms
  • Wambolt SR, Garza J. Another Emergent Cause of Headache. Cureus. 2018 May 14;10(5):e2623. doi: 10.7759/cureus.2623. PMID: 30027015; PMCID: PMC6044492.
  • Zhang G, Yang ZG, Bai J, Li Y, Xu HY, Long QH. Leukemias involving abdominal and pelvic lymph nodes: evaluation with contrast-enhanced MDCT. Abdom Imaging. 2014 Oct;39(5):1063-9. doi: 10.1007/s00261-014-0128-7. PMID: 24760322.
  • Clarke RT, Van den Bruel A, Bankhead C, Mitchell CD, Phillips B, Thompson MJ. Clinical presentation of childhood leukaemia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Dis Child. 2016 Oct;101(10):894-901. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2016-311251. PMID: 27647842.
  • Blood cancer and fatigue. (n.d.). Blood Cancer UK. Available in https://bloodcancer.org.uk/support-for-you/living-well/fatigue/#:~:text=Whether%20you’re%20living%20with,you’re%20well%2Drested.
  • Shephard EA, Neal RD, Rose PW, Walter FM, Hamilton W. Symptoms of adult chronic and acute leukaemia before diagnosis: large primary care case-control studies using electronic records. Br J Gen Pract. 2016 Mar;66(644):e182-8. doi: 10.3399/bjgp16X683989. PMID: 26917658; PMCID: PMC4758497.
  • Giménez, María & Martínez, Ana & Hernández, María & Sánchez, Carlos. (2019). Gingivitis as a first symptom of acute myeloblastic leukemia. Revista Clínica de Medicina de Familia. 12. 32-35.
  • Nebgen DR, Rhodes HE, Hartman C, Munsell MF, Lu KH. Abnormal Uterine Bleeding as the Presenting Symptom of Hematologic Cancer. Obstet Gynecol. 2016 Aug;128(2):357-363. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000001529. PMID: 27400009; PMCID: PMC4961605.
  • Robak E, Robak T. Skin lesions in chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Leuk Lymphoma. 2007 May;48(5):855-65. doi: 10.1080/10428190601137336. PMID: 17487727.
  • Silver, R. T., Utz, J. P., Frei, E., III, & McCullough, N. B. (1958). Fever, infection and host resistance in acute leukemia. In The American Journal of Medicine (Vol. 24, Issue 1, pp. 25–39). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/0002-9343(58)90359-0
  • Bodey GP, Rodriguez V, Chang HY, Narboni. Fever and infection in leukemic patients: a study of 494 consecutive patients. Cancer. 1978 Apr;41(4):1610-22. doi: 10.1002/1097-0142(197804)41:4<1610::aid-cncr2820410452>3.0.co;2-b. PMID: 346201.
  • Sidana, S., Mukherjee, S., Elson, P.J., Seastone, D.J., Nazha, A., Maggiotto, A.L., Ccrp, Schaub, M., Wenzell, C.M., Bcop, Advani, A.S., Kalaycio, M.E., & Sekeres, M.A. (2013). The Degree and Effect Of Weight Loss In Acute Myeloid Leukemia Patients Receiving Induction and Post-Remission Chemotherapy. Blood, 122, 3889-3889.
  • Shephard EA, Neal RD, Rose PW, Walter FM, Hamilton W. Symptoms of adult chronic and acute leukaemia before diagnosis: large primary care case-control studies using electronic records. Br J Gen Pract. 2016 Mar;66(644):e182-8. doi: 10.3399/bjgp16X683989. PMID: 26917658; PMCID: PMC4758497.
  • Kinsella S, Dudakov JA. When the Damage Is Done: Injury and Repair in Thymus Function. Front Immunol. 2020 Aug 12;11:1745. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2020.01745. PMID: 32903477; PMCID: PMC7435010.
  • Di Grande A, Peirs S, Donovan PD, Van Trimpont M, Morscio J, Lintermans B, Reunes L, Vandamme N, Goossens S, Nguyen HA, Lavie A, Lock RB, Prehn JHM, Van Vlierberghe P, Ní Chonghaile T. The spleen as a sanctuary site for residual leukemic cells following ABT-199 monotherapy in ETP-ALL. Blood Adv. 2021 Apr 13;5(7):1963-1976. doi: 10.1182/bloodadvances.2021004177. PMID: 33830207; PMCID: PMC8045507.
  • Kreiniz N, Beyar Katz O, Polliack A, Tadmor T. The Clinical Spectrum of Hepatic Manifestations in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. Clin Lymphoma Myeloma Leuk. 2017 Dec;17(12):863-869. doi: 10.1016/j.clml.2017.07.008. Epub 2017 Jul 23. PMID: 28803824.
  • Ebert EC, Hagspiel KD. Gastrointestinal manifestations of leukemia. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2012 Mar;27(3):458-63. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1746.2011.06908.x. PMID: 21913980.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.