Symptoms of Acute Myeloid Leukemia

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Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) interferes with normal bone marrow function as immature blood cells crowd out normal ones. The result can be an immune system that no longer wards off infection well.

Symptoms can come on suddenly. Early on, those with this condition may believe they are just feeling unwell or have the flu, with general symptoms such as fatigue, malaise, and fever. They may also find that they are losing weight for no apparent reason.

In this article, learn about the frequent and rare symptoms of acute myeloid leukemia, how they differ for children or people who are pregnant, and the complications of acute myeloid leukemia.

Vial of blood with the definition of acute myeloid leukemia beneath this.

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Frequent Symptoms

With AML, immature cells proliferate in the bone marrow. These interfere with the production of normal blood cells, which can then lead to numerous blood-related issues.

The initial feeling of general unwellness that can include fatigue, fever, night sweats, and more is not caused by leukemia itself. Rather, this is caused by infections that arise when the body can't fight off germs because it's compromised by leukemia.

Normal White Blood Cell Shortage

Leukemia itself can cause its own set of symptoms. If normal white blood cells are in short supply, people may find they get one feverish infection after another or catch something they can't seem to shake.

Their resistance is perpetually down. This shortage of white blood cells is known as neutropenia.

While any type of infection can occur, people with AML may commonly experience:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Diarrhea
  • Urination pain
  • Pneumonia (infection in the lungs)
  • Sepsis (infection in the bloodstream)

Anemia

If the immature leukemia cells are crowding the marrow, the production of red blood cells may be impaired. The result can be anemia. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. Without enough of them, you can have symptoms such as:

  • Experiencing coldness
  • Periods of dizziness or feeling lightheaded
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Weakness
  • Unusually pale skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches

Low Blood Platelet Levels

With AML, another possibility is that blood platelet levels can plummet. Platelets are produced in the bone marrow and help control bleeding and clotting in the body. If there aren't enough platelets to accomplish this, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • Nosebleeds
  • Bleeding gums
  • Bruising of the skin or tiny red spots under the skin known as petechiae
  • Excessive menstrual bleeding

Bone and Joint Pain

In some cases, a buildup of leukemia cells in bones or around joints can cause pain in these areas.

Abdominal Fullness

The immature leukemia cells may collect in the spleen or liver. This can cause area enlargement and swelling of the abdomen. While you may not notice this, a doctor can usually detect the enlargement when touching the area during an exam.

Difficulty With Clotting

Some with a particular form of AML, known as acute promyelocytic leukemia, may experience particular issues with blood clotting and bleeding. This may involve a cut that continues bleeding or oozing long after it should or a nosebleed for which usual remedies won't work.

Those with this condition may experience chest pain or shortness of breath as a result of a pulmonary embolism, also known as a blood clot in the lung. There is also the possibility of experiencing a deep vein thrombosis, marked by pain in a swollen calf.

Rare Symptoms

Less commonly, some may become aware of unusually tender areas of the body where lymph nodes are swollen, such as the neck, groin, or even the armpits. But keep in mind, these can actually be just about anywhere since you have lymph nodes in many areas of the body.

In some cases, AML may affect the skin. This may cause what appears to be a simple rash. In actuality, this is a collection of acute myeloid leukemia cells grouping together underneath the skin like tiny tumors. In rare instances, this may be an early sign even before the bone marrow is affected.

The AML also has the potential to spread to various areas of the body. Symptoms that the gums are affected include bleeding, swelling, and pain.

Less commonly, organs such as the spinal cord or brain may be affected. If it has spread to these areas, individuals may experience:

  • Weakness
  • Difficulty balancing
  • Headaches
  • Visual blurring
  • Vomiting
  • Numbness of the face
  • Seizures

In extremely rare instances, organs such as the testicles, eyes, kidneys, and others may be affected by AML.

Complications/Subgroup Indications

For some patients, AML can present its own particular set of challenges or special considerations. Here's what to know for those who may fall into special subgroups.

In cases of pregnancy, this condition can potentially cause unique complications. To start with, pregnant patients may experience a delay in diagnosis since early symptoms tend to be very nonspecific. It may be easy to attribute symptoms such as weakness, tiredness, paleness, and shortness of breath to being newly pregnant.

Also, being pregnant can possibly aggravate associated conditions such as leukostasis, in which white blood cells plug up small blood vessels. This leads to a lack of adequate oxygen, thrombosis (clotting in the blood vessels), and possibly excessive bleeding.

Likewise, children may face their own unique complications from AML or related to associated treatments since they are still developing. These can include:

  • Learning issues
  • Slower growth
  • Future fertility issues
  • Problems with thinning of the bones and other bone-related issues
  • Heart and lung issues later in life

When to See a Doctor/Go to the Hospital

Many symptoms of AML tend to be general and can be associated with a variety of conditions. Even if you can check off several of the symptoms, don't assume that you indeed have this disorder.

If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, however, it's important to check this out with a doctor, who with the aid of proper testing can make a diagnosis.

A serious infection with a high fever requires prompt medical attention. Don't hesitate to call your doctor.

If you have reason to suspect you may have a pulmonary embolism or deep vein thrombosis, these are serious, potentially life-threatening events and you should seek immediate medical attention.

Summary

Acute myeloid leukemia produces nonspecific symptoms as immature cells crowd out healthy red and white blood cells and platelets in the bone marrow. This can impair the ability to fight infections, resulting in a variety of symptoms such as fever.

It can lead to anemia with fatigue, weakness, and paleness. Low platelet levels can lead to bleeding and clotting problems. Complications can include deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism. The leukemia cells can spread to other organ systems and locations, resulting in more symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

It's not unusual for those with this condition to have some of the more general symptoms of AML early on. Most often this will simply be a sign that you are battling an infection.

If, however, you can't seem to recover in a reasonable amount of time, or if you find you are continuously battling some new infection, do consult a physician about this. The earlier you can get a diagnosis, the more treatment possibilities may be available.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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