Symptoms of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a slow-growing blood cancer that starts in the bone marrow and is most often seen in people of middle age or older. It's typical for CLL to not produce symptoms for several years, and symptoms that do occur are common for many other conditions.

A healthcare provider may suspect CLL after doing routine blood work and seeing abnormal results for white blood cells. They'll then typically perform additional testing to confirm a diagnosis. 

In this article, learn about the common and rare symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia and the possible complications of this type of cancer.

Woman discusses symptoms with doctor

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Common Symptoms

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia begins in cells called lymphocytes in the bone marrow. Lymphocytes are a specific type of white blood cell. The cancerous cells then spread to the blood. CLL is a slow-growing cancer that can take years to cause symptoms, unlike acute leukemias.

Generally, CLL doesn’t produce symptoms until the cancer has spread. Most people receive a CLL diagnosis after a healthcare professional notices abnormal blood test results.

However, common symptoms may include:

Abdominal fullness may occur due to swelling of the spleen or liver. Keep in mind that many of these symptoms may be a sign of other, less serious conditions. 

As the cancer advances, symptoms may appear or become more pronounced. Because CLL affects the bone marrow’s ability to produce normal blood cells, people may experience:

  • Anemia: This lack of red blood cells occurs because the bone marrow can’t produce enough of this type of blood cell. 
  • Increased infections: CLL impairs the bone marrow’s ability to produce normal white blood cells, which can limit the body’s ability to fight off infection. 
  • Excess bleeding or bruising: A lack of blood platelets (cells produced in the bone marrow that are involved in blood clotting) can impact the body’s ability to control bleeding.

Rare Symptoms 

In rare cases, CLL may develop quickly, and people may experience symptoms early on. Symptoms may also range in severity depending on the person.

What's the Family Connection?

Evidence suggests that if you have a close family member who has CLL, you may be more likely to develop this type of cancer. However, overall, the risk is still minimal. And having any kind of risk factor doesn't necessarily mean you'll develop CLL.

Complications/Subgroup Indications

CLL most often affects people over the age of 50. It very rarely affects children or people under 30 years of age. There is not much information regarding how CLL manifests in young people because it occurs so rarely.

While CLL is one of the most common leukemias in adults, it rarely affects people who are pregnant. However, one case study points out that CLL can cause symptoms that may lead to pregnancy complications. Increased risk of infection can also pose a problem during pregnancy.

When to See a Doctor

Unfortunately, many symptoms of CLL are vague and can be associated with many other conditions. Most people usually receive a diagnosis of CLL because they go in for routine blood work and abnormal results are found unexpectedly. 

That said, if you’re having some of the symptoms listed above, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider and get diagnostic testing. Additionally, if you’re experiencing severe symptoms like a very high fever or frequent infections, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your healthcare provider. 

Testing For CLL

How do doctors typically diagnose CLL? Abnormal blood cell counts may be the first clue, but additional testing is required to confirm a diagnosis. Further testing may include:

Summary 

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is a form of cancer that begins in the bone marrow and produces nonspecific symptoms. Because the production of normal blood cells is hampered, this condition can cause anemia, make it more difficult for your body to fight off infections, and lead to easy bruising and bleeding.

Other symptoms you may experience include fever, fatigue, weakness, weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, night sweats, and a feeling of fullness in the abdomen. As the cancer spreads, it can cause additional symptoms. 

A Word From Verywell 

Most people with CLL don’t have symptoms early on. You may have CLL for years and not know it. Some people may experience generalized symptoms like fatigue and weakness. However, often these general symptoms may also be a sign of other conditions, such as the flu.

If you find it takes a while to recover from sickness, or you’re experiencing frequent infections, talk to your healthcare provider, who can recommend testing and provide you with a diagnosis. 

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6 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.
  1. MedlinePlus. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

  2. American Cancer Society. What is chronic lymphocytic leukemia?

  3. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Revised May 10, 2018.

  4. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

  5. Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

  6. Winckler P, et al. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia during pregnancy: Management and thoughts. Ecancermedicalscience. 2015;9:592. doi:10.3332/ecancer.2015.592

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