Leukemia--Acute Myeloid (Myelogenous) Overview

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Signs and symptoms of acute myeloid leukemia

Patients with AML often have symptoms like weight loss, tiredness (fatigue), fever, night sweats, and loss of appetite. Although these symptoms and signs may be caused by AML, they can also be caused by problems other than cancer. Still, if you have any of them, see a doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

Symptoms from low numbers of normal blood cells

Most signs and symptoms of AML come from a shortage of normal blood cells, which happens when the leukemia cells crowd out the normal blood-making cells in the bone marrow. As a result, people do not have enough normal red blood cells, white blood cells, and blood platelets. These shortages show up on blood tests, but they can also cause symptoms.

  • Shortage of red blood cells (anemia): can cause a person to feel short of breath, tired (fatigued), cold, and dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Shortage of normal white blood cells: Not having enough normal white blood cells can increase the risk of infection. People with leukemia may have very high white blood cell counts, but the cells are not normal and don't protect against infection. Fevers and other signs of infection are common symptoms.
  • Shortage of blood platelets: Not having enough blood platelets can lead to bruising, bleeding, frequent or severe nosebleeds, and bleeding gums.

Symptoms from high numbers of leukemia cells

AML cancer cells are bigger than normal white blood cells and have more trouble going through tiny blood vessels. These cells can clog up blood vessels and make it hard for normal red blood cells (and oxygen) to get to tissues. If that happens, it can interfere with normal blood flow to the brain, leading to symptoms like those seen with a stroke, such as:

  • Headache
  • Weakness in one side of the body,
  • Slurred speech,
  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness.

The cancer cells can also interfere with normal blood flow to other tissues, leading to problems with shortness of breath, blurry vision or even loss of vision.

These problems are rare, but they need to be treated right away.

Bleeding and clotting problems

Patients with a certain type of AML called acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) may have bleeding and clotting problems. They may have a nose bleed that won’t stop, or a cut that won’t stop oozing. They may also have calf swelling from a blood clot called a deep venous thrombosis (DVT) or chest pain and shortness of breath from a blood clot in the lung (called a pulmonary embolism or PE).

Bone or joint pain

Some people have pain caused by the build-up of leukemia cells in bones or joints.

Swelling in the belly

Leukemia can also cause swelling of the liver and spleen. This may be noticed as a fullness or swelling of the belly.

Spread to the skin

If leukemia cells spread to the skin, they can cause lumps or spots that may look like common rashes.

Spread to the gums

Certain types of AML can spread to the gums, causing swelling, pain, and bleeding.

Spread to other organs

Sometimes, leukemia cells spread to other organs. If it spreads to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) it can cause:

  • Headaches
  • Weakness
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble with balance
  • Numbness on the face
  • Blurred vision

AML rarely spreads to the eyes, testicles, kidneys, or other organs.

Enlarged lymph nodes

AML rarely spreads to lymph nodes. Nodes in the neck, groin, under arms, or above the collarbone may swell and be felt as lumps under the skin.

Last Medical Review: 06/27/2013
Last Revised: 02/07/2014