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Many people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) do not have any symptoms when it is diagnosed. The leukemia is often found when their doctor orders blood tests for some unrelated health problem or during a routine check-up and they are found to have a high number of lymphocytes.
Even when people with CLL have symptoms, they're often vague and can be symptoms of other things. Symptoms can include the following:
Many of the signs and symptoms of advanced CLL occur because the leukemia cells replace the bone marrow's normal blood-making cells. As a result, people don't have enough red blood cells, properly functioning white blood cells, and blood platelets.
People with CLL have a higher risk of infections. This is mainly because their immune systems aren't working as well as they should. CLL is a cancer of B lymphocytes, which normally make antibodies that help fight infection. Because of the CLL, these antibody-making cells don't work as they should, so they can't fight infections. Infections may range from simple things like frequent colds or cold sores to pneumonia and other serious infections.
CLL can also affect the immune system in other ways. In some people with CLL, the immune system cells make abnormal antibodies that attack normal blood cells. This is known as autoimmunity. It can lead to low blood counts. If the antibodies attack red blood cells, it's called autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Less often, the antibodies attack platelets and the cells that make them, leading to low platelet counts. Rarely, the antibodies attack white blood cells, leading to leukopenia (low white blood cell counts).
These symptoms and signs may be caused by CLL, but they can also be caused by other conditions. Still, if you have any of these problems, it's important to see a doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Leukemia - Chronic Lymphocytic - CLL: Symptoms and Signs (06/2016). Accessed at www.cancer.net/cancer-types/leukemia-chronic-lymphocytic-cll/symptoms-and-signs on April 12, 2018.
National Cancer Institute. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. March 28, 2018. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/leukemia/patient/cll-treatment-pdq on April 12, 2018.
Last Revised: May 10, 2018