7 Important Symptoms of Leukemia in Children

Written by Ann Pietrangelo | Published on February 26, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on February 26, 2014

What Is Leukemia?

Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells. Blood cells and platelets are produced in the bone marrow. In leukemia, white bloods cells fail to mature properly. These immature cells continue to reproduce at a rapid rate, crowding out healthy cells and producing a host of symptoms.

According to Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer, affecting about 3,500 children a year in the United States.

How Do Symptoms Begin?

The cause of childhood leukemia cannot be determined in most cases. Signs of leukemia can vary from one child to another. Symptoms of chronic leukemia generally develop slowly, but those of acute leukemia can appear suddenly. Some symptoms can be easily confused with those of common childhood diseases.

Seven important symptoms of leukemia in children are described on the following slides. It’s important to note that having some of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean your child has leukemia.

Bruising and Bleeding

A child with leukemia may bleed more than expected after a minor injury or nosebleed. The child may also bruise easily, or have small red spots on the skin (petechiae), caused by tiny blood vessels that have bled.

The blood’s ability to clot depends on healthy blood platelets. In a child with leukemia, a blood test will reveal an abnormally low platelet count.

Abdominal Problems

A child with leukemia may complain of a bellyache. That’s because leukemia cells can accumulate in the spleen, liver, and kidneys, causing them to enlarge. In some cases, a doctor may be able to feel abdominal swelling. The child may also have a poor appetite or be unable to eat a normal amount of food. Weight loss is common.  

Trouble Breathing

Leukemic cells can clump around the thymus, a gland at the base of the neck. This can make it difficult to breathe (dyspnea). Breathing trouble can also result from swollen lymph nodes in the chest that push up against the windpipe. A child with leukemia may cough or wheeze. Painful breathing should be considered a medical emergency.

Frequent Infections

White blood cells are necessary to fight off infection, but the immature white blood cells of leukemia are unable to perform that function properly. A child with leukemia may experience frequent bouts of viral or bacterial infections. Symptoms include coughing, fever, and runny nose. These infections often show no improvement, even with the use of antibiotics or other treatment.

Swelling

Lymph nodes filter the blood, but leukemia cells sometimes collect in lymph nodes. This can cause swelling under your child’s arms, in the neck, above the collarbone, or in the groin. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans may reveal swollen lymph nodes of the abdomen or inside the chest.

An enlarged thymus can press on a vein that transports blood from the arms and head to the heart. This pressure can cause blood to pool and lead to swelling of the face and arms. The head, arms, and upper chest may take on a bluish-red color. Other symptoms include headache and dizziness.

Bone and Joint Pain

Slide 8: Bone and Joint Pain

Blood is produced within bone marrow. Leukemia causes blood cells to reproduce at an accelerated rate, leading to severe overcrowding of blood cells. This build-up of cells can lead to aches and pains of the bones and joints. Some children with leukemia may complain of lower pack pain. Others may develop a limp due to pain in the legs.

Anemia

Red blood cells help to distribute oxygen throughout the body. Overcrowding makes it difficult to produce enough red blood cells. This is a condition called anemia. Symptoms include fatigue, pale skin, and rapid breathing. Some children also report feeling weak or lightheaded.

If blood flow to the brain is reduced, a child may slur their speech. A blood test will show if your child has an abnormally low red blood cell count.

Prognosis for Childhood Leukemia

Remember, having some of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily indicate leukemia. There are several forms of childhood leukemia and many factors that impact the prognosis. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment can improve outcome. Consult with your child’s doctor. 

According to the American Cancer Society, survival rates for some forms of childhood leukemia have risen over time, and improvements in treatment point to a better outlook for children diagnosed today.

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