Early symptoms of leukemia often include easy bleeding, frequent infections, and fatigue. In the late stages, you might develop symptoms such as confusion, slow breathing, and hallucinations.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 59,610 people in the United States will receive new leukemia diagnoses in 2023.

Most leukemia symptoms are caused by cancer cells crowding out the following types of cells:

This article looks at leukemia symptoms you may experience at each stage of the cancer’s development.

Do leukemia symptoms vary across types?

Leukemia can be divided into four main categories depending on the type of cells it develops in and how quickly it progresses. From most to least common in the United States, they are:

Symptoms can vary depending on the type of leukemia you have. Additionally, you may not experience the same symptoms as other people with leukemia or have all the symptoms commonly associated with this disease.

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Most leukemia symptoms are general and could be caused by many conditions. Chronic leukemias are commonly discovered before they cause symptoms. Some people may have swelling in their:

  • spleen
  • liver
  • lymph nodes

Symptoms of acute leukemia often develop over a few weeks. Some of the early symptoms, such as fever and lethargy, may mimic those of the flu. Other possible early symptoms include:

In a 2020 study, researchers found that 8.8% of children with ALL had bone pain, joint pain, or another orthopedic concern as their first symptom.

Leukemia may be misdiagnosed as arthritis when joint pain is the first symptom. In a 2020 case study, researchers presented a case of an 18-year-old with ALL who initially received a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis.

When should you see a doctor?

It’s important to visit a doctor if you notice changes in your body that are potential symptoms of leukemia, especially if they’ve been getting worse over time.

Most of the time, these symptoms are caused by something other than leukemia. But if leukemia is the cause, getting examined early may mean that doctors can catch the cancer while it’s still easiest to treat.

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As leukemia advances, you may develop new or more severe symptoms as your blood cell counts continue to drop.

Potential symptoms include:

  • frequent infections, such as:
  • severe anemia, which might cause:
    • headaches
    • irritability
    • loss of appetite
    • numbness and tingling in your hands and feet
    • weakness
    • severe fatigue
    • paleness
    • dizziness and lightheadedness
  • more severe bleeding and bruising
  • flat red spots on your skin (petechiae)
  • rashes
  • swollen abdomen
  • other cancers
  • bone or joint pain
  • swollen lymph nodes

Symptoms of end stage leukemia can vary from person to person depending on the course of the disease and the leukemia subtype. Some people might develop severe disease after months, while others might not have severe symptoms for decades.

End stage symptoms can potentially include:

Leukemia and the treatments for it can cause many side effects. Here are some ways you may be able to manage them.

Managing anemia-related side effects

  • Eat plenty of foods high in iron, such as oysters, clams, fortified cereals, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and spinach.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol if your doctor tells you that you have anemia.
  • Consume low to moderate amounts of foods with vitamin K to reduce the risk of bleeding (and stop taking blood thinners or vitamin K supplements if you’re currently taking them).
  • Take naps or schedule periods of rest throughout the day to let yourself recharge.

Managing low white blood cell count side effects

  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Avoid people who are sick.
  • Stay up to date with your vaccines.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them.
  • Avoid sharing utensils.

Managing low platelet count side effects

  • Avoid activities that put you at risk of injury, such as contact sports.
  • Use a soft toothbrush.
  • Don’t undergo dental work during this time.
  • Use electric razors when shaving.
  • Avoid taking anti-inflammatory pain medications.
  • Avoid taking aspirin.
  • Wear shoes or slippers to avoid cuts on your feet.
  • Rinse your mouth with ice water if your gums start bleeding.

Managing other symptoms

  • Ask for help with grocery shopping, meal prep, and other daily activities.
  • Try eating small meals and bland foods, such as crackers, to help reduce nausea.
  • Work with an occupational therapist to improve your daily functioning.
  • Sit upright after eating to help with digestion.
  • Consider banking sperm or freezing eggs before treatment if you think you may want to have children in the future.

Most leukemia symptoms develop due to cancer cells crowding out healthy platelets, red blood cells, and white blood cells. Common symptoms include tiredness, frequent infections, and easy bleeding or bruising.

Most symptoms of leukemia are general and have many possible causes. In many cases, they’re caused by something other than leukemia, but it’s still important to seek medical attention to rule out cancer.