Leukemia Symptoms

April 19, 2024 
This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by Guido Marcucci, M.D., Chair, Department of Hematologic Malignancies Translational Science, City of Hope Duarte

Leukemia is an umbrella term for a group of cancers found in the blood and bone marrow. It occurs when the production of abnormal white blood cells kicks into overdrive, preventing healthy red blood cells, platelets and mature white cells or leukocytes from growing.

Symptoms vary based on the type of leukemia and its stage at diagnosis. Symptoms tend to be vague at first and often resemble those of more common conditions such as the flu. In the early stages of leukemia, there may be no symptoms at all. Sometimes, leukemia is picked up during routine blood work in the absence of any symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Leukemia

Leukemia symptoms are often related to the affected blood cells.

For example, certain leukemia symptoms stem from a shortage of healthy red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all of the cells in the body. Related symptoms may include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Pale complexion
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling cold
  • Dizziness
  • Headache

Healthy white blood cells fight infection, but when abnormal white blood cells multiply and divide, they push out healthy ones, increasing the risk for infection.

Platelets clump together to stop bleeding. When they are in short supply due to leukemia, certain symptoms may occur. These may include:

  • Easy bruising
  • Excess bleeding
  • Tiny red spots under the skin
  • Swollen or bleeding gums
  • Heavier-than-normal menstrual periods in women
  • Nosebleeds

Some leukemia symptoms are non-specific, such as:

  • Night sweats
  • Fever
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Flu-like symptoms

Other symptoms may be related to where the blood cells collect. If leukemia cells build up in the liver and spleen, these organs may become enlarged. If leukemia cells build up near bones, pain may occur.

Leukemia Symptoms in Women Versus Men

About 1.6% of men and women are diagnosed with leukemia during their lifetime.

While many leukemia symptoms are similar across the sexes, women may experience sex-specific symptoms, including:

  • Heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Heavy bleeding in between menstrual cycles

In addition, a combination of symptoms of leukemia are similar to menopause, including hot flashes, night sweats and fatigue.

Read more to learn about leukemia symptoms by type:

  • American Society of Hematology. Leukemia. 

  • U.S. National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus (2023, November 9). Leukemia. 

  • American Cancer Society (2018, August 21). Signs and Symptoms of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). 

  • National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program. Cancer Stat Facts: Leukemia. 

  • Leukemia Care. Blood cancer and women’s issues.