Leukaemia (acute lymphoblastic)

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells. It progresses rapidly and aggressively and requires immediate treatment. Both adults and children can be affected.

Symptoms of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

In acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, large numbers of white blood cells are released into the blood before they are ready. 

The condition usually starts slowly before rapidly becoming severe. This happens due to the increase in the number of immature white blood cells in your blood.

Most of the symptoms are caused by the lack of healthy blood cells in your blood supply. Symptoms include:

  • pale skin
  • feeling tired and breathless
  • repeated infections over a short space of time
  • unusual and frequent bleeding, such as bleeding gums or nosebleeds
  • high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • night sweats
  • bone and joint pain
  • easily bruised skin
  • swollen lymph nodes (glands)
  • abdominal pain – caused by a swollen liver or spleen
  • unexplained weight loss 
  • a purple skin rash (purpura)

In some cases, the affected cells can spread from your bloodstream into your central nervous system. This can cause a series of neurological symptoms (related to the brain and nervous system), including:

When to get medical advice

If you or your child has some or even all of the symptoms listed above, though possible, it's still highly unlikely that acute leukaemia is the cause.

See your GP as soon as possible because any condition that causes these symptoms needs prompt investigation and treatment.

Diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

The first step in diagnosing acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is to check for physical signs of the condition. This would include signs such as swollen glands, and to take a blood sample.

If the blood sample contains a high number of abnormal white blood cells, it could be a sign of acute leukaemia.

If this is the case, your GP will refer you to a haematologist (a specialist in treating blood conditions).

Treating acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

As acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is an aggressive condition that develops rapidly, treatment usually begins a soon after a diagnosis.

Chemotherapy is the main treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published January 2018

This page is due for review February 2020

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