Signs of childhood leukemia

Many signs of leukemia in children are also symptoms of less serious illnesses in children. Know the signs to help you know when to talk to your pediatrician.

Signs of childhood leukemia are also symptoms of other common childhood illnesses. Leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children –– 1 in 3 children with childhood cancer have leukemia. Many of the early signs of leukemia are similar to those of other common childhood conditions. Here are the signs of leukemia in children — and what parents can do if they’re concerned.

Leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells. White blood cells, also called leukocytes, help the body fight infection. With leukemia, the bone marrow (the material inside of bones) creates abnormal white blood cells. These abnormal leukocytes begin to fill the bone marrow and get into the bloodstream. These abnormal cells do not work like healthy white blood cells and can’t fight infections.

Early signs of childhood leukemia

Leukemia usually affects children younger than 10 years old. The earliest warning signs can be symptoms of infections such as the cold or flu that never go away or keep coming back. Children may seem very tired (lethargy), and parents may notice frequent bruises. These early signs are also symptoms of other childhood conditions, and parents should work with their child’s pediatrician if they have concerns.

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The symptoms of leukemia a child can depend on whether there are not enough of the normal white blood cells and whether there are too many cancer cells. The cancer cells can crowd out red blood cells, which can cause anemia to develop. Symptoms of anemia can include:

  • Dizziness
  • Feeling cold
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Feeling winded easily
  • Headaches
  • Pale skin

Not having enough healthy white blood cells can lead to frequent infections. Symptoms can include:

  • Frequent fevers
  • Frequent cold and flu symptoms
  • Getting sick easily
  • Swollen glands

The crowding of cells in the bone marrow also may cause a low platelet count in the blood. When platelets are low, children can bruise easier, and a child may have difficulty with blood clotting. Signs of low platelets may include:

  • Bleeding gums
  • Child bruises easily and often
  • Cuts and scrapes that have trouble clotting and may ooze for awhile
  • Frequent nosebleeds

Additional symptoms can be caused by cancer cells growing quickly and completely crowding the bone marrow or invading the lymph nodes. The cancer cells also may invade other organs. These signs or symptoms can come later in the illness, but can include:

  • Bone or joint pain
  • Cough or trouble breathing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swelling in the abdomen
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Weight loss

When to talk to your child’s pediatrician

It’s important to talk to your child’s pediatrician about any symptoms that you notice in your child. Parents should trust their instincts if they feel that their child isn’t acting like themselves.

“Some leukemia symptoms are shared by many different types of conditions. It’s important to for parents to investigate any symptoms their child experiences,” said Mustafa Barbour, M.D., pediatric hematology/oncology specialist with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “Early diagnosis and treatment, most of the time, leads to better outcomes for children.”

Norton Children’s Cancer Institute is a long-standing member of the Children’s Oncology Group. The Children’s Oncology Group is the largest group of hospitals around the world treating children with cancer. Children treated at Norton Children’s Cancer Institute have access to innovative new treatments through clinical trials via the Children’s Oncology Group. Access to these groundbreaking treatments can improve childhood cancer outcomes while decreasing long-term effects. Patients are encouraged to enroll in clinical trials to obtain the most current forms of treatment.


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Norton Children’s Cancer Institute

Advanced pediatric cancer care.

(502) 629-7725

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