What to Know About Leukemia Rash

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Leukemia is a type of cancer that starts in the blood-forming tissues of the bone marrow. There are a number of symptoms of leukemia, one of which is skin changes that look like rashes. The rashes can differ in appearance, depending on the type. They may be a symptom of the cancer itself or a side effect of treatment.

This article discusses the types of rashes that can appear with leukemia and the treatment options available.

First-Line Treatment for Cancer - Illustration by Ellen Lindner

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Other Symptoms of Leukemia

The bone marrow in our bodies creates cells that develop into white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. With leukemia, the bone marrow produces too many abnormal white blood cells. These faulty cells crowd out the healthy ones and make it hard for them to function properly.

Unlike other types of cancer, leukemia usually doesn’t form into a tumor that can be seen on imaging tests. There are several types of leukemia, which are categorized by the blood cells they affect and how quickly they grow.

Sometimes, leukemia doesn’t show any warning signs or symptoms at all.

If you do experience symptoms, they may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Frequent infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • A feeling of fullness or pain below the ribs on the left side
  • Swollen lumps in the neck, underarm, groin, or stomach
  • Stomach or bone pain
  • Shortness of breath

Different types of rashes can also present as a sign of leukemia or develop as a side effect of cancer treatment.

Types of Leukemia Rashes

Most rashes on the body aren’t due to cancer. But the skin is sometimes affected by leukemia. There are several types of rashes that impact people with this form of cancer. 

Petechiae

Petechiae are tiny, painless spots that are created by broken blood vessels in the skin. They are linked to low platelet counts in the blood.

People with anemia (a low number of healthy red blood cells) may develop a petechial rash, which they sometimes call an "anemia rash."

Petechiae look like small, flat, reddish dots on the skin. They’re usually purple, red, or brown in color and are about the size of a pinpoint.

While petechiae is a symptom of leukemia, the skin change may also be caused by other noncancerous conditions, such as liver problems.

Where Does Petechiae Occur?

The petechial rash usually appears on areas of the body where blood is most likely to accumulate, such as the legs, feet, hands, and arms.

Leukemia Cutis

Leukemia cutis is a relatively rare skin condition that’s caused by the leukemia itself. It happens when certain white blood cells leave the blood or bone marrow and make their way into the skin.

Leukemia cutis typically looks like bumpy growths that appear red-brown or purple. The nodules usually feel firm or rubbery.

Sweet's Syndrome

Sweet's syndrome is a rare skin condition that some people with leukemia develop. It can cause a painful rash that mostly affects the arms, face, and neck.

The bumps are usually small and red and may be accompanied by a fever. They can grow and spread into clusters.

Drug-Reaction Rash

Certain medications you take may cause skin rashes.

Chemotherapy treatment sometimes triggers a painful rash that looks like acne and can burn or sting.

Other drugs might cause a condition called morbilliform drug eruption, which presents as a rash that resembles the measles.

Vasculitis

Vasculitis is an inflammation of blood vessels. It can appear on the skin as red or purple spots but can also cause lumps or open sores to develop. You may also have a fever, pain, and swelling with vasculitis.

Folliculitis

Folliculitis is a skin infection that develops in hair follicles. If you have leukemia, you may be more likely to experience folliculitis because your body doesn’t make enough mature white blood cells to effectively fight infections.

Folliculitis lesions can appear just about anywhere on the skin. They are often painful and itchy and look like an acne breakout.

Ringworm

Ringworm, also called tinea, is a fungal infection that people with leukemia may be more prone to developing.

If you have ringworm, it usually appears as a circular, patchy rash that’s itchy. The patches can be pink, red, gray, or brown in color. 

Preventing Ringworm

To help prevent ringworm:

  • Keep your skin, fingernails, and toenails clean and dry.
  • Change your socks and underwear at least once a day.
  • Avoid sharing personal items like towels and hairbrushes.
  • Avoid infected animals.

Other Rashes

You may develop other types of rashes or skin issues with leukemia. Easy bruising of the skin is common in people with leukemia. Your skin might also appear paler than usual.

Treatment

Treatment for your rash will depend on the type of skin condition you have and what's causing it.

Conditions like petechiae and leukemia cutis may not need a specific treatment. Instead, your healthcare provider might use therapies to target your cancer, which may also help clear your skin. In some cases, providers prescribe a medication to reduce swelling or calm your immune system.

Folliculitis can be treated with an antibacterial or antifungal medication.

Typically, ringworm therapies include topical antifungals.

Symptoms of Sweet's syndrome can usually be controlled with corticosteroid pills.

Several treatments are used for vasculitis, including medicines to suppress the immune system and steroids to reduce inflammation.

Summary

Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that affects many parts of the body, including the skin. Symptoms of skin rashes vary from person to person. They can appear as tiny bumps or larger lesions that spread. Some rashes are itchy and painful, while others don't cause any discomfort.

A Word From Verywell

If you develop a rash that looks unusual, it's important to get it examined. It's unlikely that your skin rash is related to leukemia, but in rare cases, it can be a sign. Talk to your healthcare provider if you're concerned about any type of skin issue that persists.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are leukemia rashes itchy?

    In some instances, rashes that are related to leukemia can be itchy. You might want to discuss a cream or ointment with your healthcare provider to help with this side effect.

  • What other skin problems does leukemia cause?

    In addition to skin rashes, leukemia can cause other issues that affect the skin. You may experience easy bleeding or bruising. Many people with leukemia who develop anemia also notice pale skin.

  • Where do leukemia rashes appear?

    Leukemia rashes can appear just about anywhere on the body. Some common locations are the chest, trunk, legs, feet, neck, face, hands, and arms.

  • How long does a leukemia rash last?

    The length of the rash depends on the type of rash, what's causing it, and other factors. The time frame varies from patient to patient.

  • Does petechiae from leukemia go away?

    Many times, petechiae will go away when the leukemia itself is treated. Treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, or a bone marrow transplant are some options. Your healthcare provider might also prescribe a steroid to reduce swelling or a medication to suppress your immune system.

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12 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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