What Are the Symptoms of Acute Leukemia in Children?

Little girl at the doctor

The signs and symptoms of acute leukemia in children depends on how much of the child’s healthy bone marrow cells have been taken over by leukemia cells, as well as whether or not the leukemia cells have clustered together in other organs—also called extramedullary spread.

Acute leukemia in children is rarely discovered by chance on routine blood work. Most children will display signs (listed below) that the leukemia cells in their marrow are interfering with the production of healthy red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Don't forget that many of these symptoms are also signs of more benign conditions.

1. Anemia (low red blood cells)

When the leukemia cells in the child’s marrow crowd out the production of red blood cells, this may lead to a condition called anemia. In anemia, there are too few red blood cells available to carry oxygen around to the tissues of the body. If your child is anemic, they may be more tired or weaker than usual, look pale, or become short of breath easily.

2. Thrombocytopenia (low platelets)

If the bone marrow becomes too overcrowded by leukemia cells to produce normal numbers of platelets, a condition called thrombocytopenia occurs. In thrombocytopenia, too few platelets are available to help the blood form clots. Your child may bruise or bleed very easily.

3. Frequent Infections

The white blood cells that are over-produced in leukemia are abnormal and too early in their development to fight infection. You may notice your child has been getting a lot of fevers and infections that they can’t seem to fight off.

4. Bone or Joint Pain

As the marrow in the center of the child’s bones becomes crowded and full of leukemia cells, they may complain of pain in their bones or joints, or you may notice they are limping or walking abnormally.

Collection of leukemia cells in other organs of the body can lead to other signs as well. 

5. Swollen Lymph Nodes

The most likely places where you would detect swollen lymph nodes are in your child’s neck, groin, armpits, and chest. If the chest nodes are affected, the child may have difficulty breathing, complain of pain, and wheeze or cough.

6. Abdominal Pain or Swelling

Abdominal pain or swelling may be caused by leukemia cells clustering in your child’s kidneys, liver, or spleen. They may have a poor appetite and lose weight as a result of the discomfort.

7. Headaches

Headaches may be caused by leukemia cells invading the brain tissue. This may also cause changes in your child’s vision or balance  and can lead to seizures.

While any sign of illness in a child can be terrifying to the parents and loved ones, it is important to know that these symptoms can also be present in other, less serious conditions. If you are worried about the health of your child, you should see your doctor or healthcare provider for advice.

View Article Sources
  • McKenna S. (2003).”Diagnosis and Treatment of Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia” in Wiernik, P., Goldman, J., Dutcher, J., and Kyle, R. (eds) Neoplastic Diseases of the Blood- 4th Ed. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.
  • Rostad M, Moore K. (1997). “Childhood Cancers” in Varricchio, C. (ed) A Cancer Source Book for Nurses. Jones and Bartlett: Sudbury, MA.
  • Weinstein H. (2003) “Diagnosis and Management of Childhood Acute Myelogenous Leukemia” in Wiernik, P., Goldman, J., Dutcher, J., and Kyle, R. (eds) Neoplastic Diseases of the Blood- 4th Ed. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.