Leukemia--Acute Lymphocytic Overview

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

What are the risk factors for acute lymphocytic leukemia?

At this time we do not know the cause of most cases of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). But some cases can be linked to certain risk factors. A risk factor is something that affects a person's chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be controlled. Others, such as a person's age, can't be changed.

But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And many people who get the disease may have few or no known risk factors. Even if a person has one or more risk factors and gets cancer, it is often very hard to know what part they may have played in getting the cancer.

There are only a few known risk factors for ALL.

Radiation exposure

A high level of radiation exposure is a risk factor for both types of acute leukemia. People who survived the atomic bombs in Japan had a much higher risk of getting acute leukemia, usually within 6 to 8 years.

Lower levels of radiation, such as from radiation treatment, x-rays, or CT scans, might also increase the risk of leukemia. Still, since few studies have looked directly at this, the level of this risk it isn’t clear. It is also not clear how much the exposure of a fetus to radiation within the first months of development might increase the risk of leukemia. If there is a higher risk from lower levels it is likely to be small, but to be safe, most doctors try to limit a person's exposure to radiation as much as possible.


The risk of ALL may be increased by exposure to certain chemicals like benzene and certain chemotherapy drugs. Chemical exposure is more strongly linked to an increased risk of AML than to ALL.

Certain viral infections

Infection with a virus called HTLV-1 can cause a rare type of ALL. But this disease is not common in the United States.

The virus that causes "mono" (mononucleosis) is called Epstein Barr Virus or EBV. In Africa it has also been linked to a form of ALL.

Inherited syndromes

ALL does not seem to run in families, so a person's risk is not increased if a family member has the disease. But there are some inherited syndromes that seem to raise the risk of ALL. A syndrome is a group of signs and symptoms that together point to a certain disorder or disease. These include:

  • Down syndrome
  • Klinefelter syndrome
  • Fanconi anemia
  • Bloom syndrome
  • Ataxia-telangiectasia
  • Neurofibromatosis


ALL is more common in whites than in African Americans, but the reasons for this are not clear.


ALL is slightly more common in males than in females. The reason for this is unknown.

Identical twin with ALL

Having an identical twin who was found to have ALL in the first year of life increases the risk of ALL in the other twin early in life.

Last Medical Review: 06/25/2013
Last Revised: 02/07/2014