Leukemia is a blood cancer that affects the body's blood-forming tissues, such as the bone marrow and parts of the lymphatic system. Normal, healthy cells undergo abnormal reproduction, among other changes, to become cancerous. Though there are several types of leukemia, most affect the white blood cells. Early detection of any cancer plays a major role in successful treatment and recovery.
Those with leukemia may develop frequent fevers that are generally low-grade and may be accompanied by chills in some cases. Traditional treatments for fever might help bring the temperature down, but the symptom will often return. Persistent or recurring fever is a sign that medical evaluation is necessary.
Leukemia also causes spontaneous and excessive bleeding. Nosebleeds and bleeding gums are common. Larger than normal amounts of blood may flow from small wounds, and wounds often take much longer to close and repair. Women may experience extremely heavy menstrual blood flow. This sign occurs because leukemia leads to low platelet count, which alters the body's clotting mechanism.
People with leukemia tend to develop red spots in the skin or petechiae. These small, reddish dots are less than 3 mm in diameter occur due to internal bleeding from small broken blood vessels. Some people may also notice frequent and dark bruising. Both petechiae and bruises are caused by a low platelet count, which leads to bleeding in superficial layers of skin.
Leukemia can cause breathing difficulties. Lymph nodes in the chest may swell and push against the windpipe, restricting breathing and causing an individual to cough and wheeze. In leukemia and other cancers, shortness of breath may also be caused by inflammation or infection of the lungs in the case of anemia, or stress or anxiety. Breathing may also become painful.
When the bloodstream is deficient in red blood cells, the body transports insufficient quantities of oxygen-rich blood. This results in anemia, which causes symptoms such as pale skin, fatigue, weakness and palpitations, and shortness of breath. In very young children, the low blood supply to the brain may lead to slurring of speech.
Bone and joint pain usually develops because the bone marrow has become overcrowded, filled with cancer cells. Joint pain and swelling typically occur several weeks after the first experiences of pain. Typically, pain affects large joints such as the hips and shoulders and the long bones of the arm and legs, as well as the ribs. Common pain-relieving treatments might provide temporary relief, but the aches will return.
People with leukemia often complain of intestinal problems such as stomach aches and bloating. Leukemia cells cluster in the spleen, liver, and kidneys, which causes swelling leading to pain and feelings of fullness, even if a person has not eaten. In some cases, abdominal swelling may be physically apparent and noticed from the outside.
Leukemia can cause people to lose weight quickly and unintentionally. The overproduction of abnormal white blood cells leads to higher energy consumption, which can cause weight loss. Also, abdominal discomforts such as pain and bloating often cause a loss of appetite, which contributes to this symptom.
The lymph nodes are responsible for filtering blood from microbes, cancerous cells, and other harmful substances. Clusters of leukemia cells may collect in the lymph nodes and cause them to swell. Pain or persistent swelling of the neck, armpit, collarbone region, or groin should alert one to a potential issue and prompt medical attention.
Leukemia can cause recurrent infections, particularly bacterial and viral diseases. The abnormal white blood cells cannot facilitate the natural immune response to microbes, leading to frequent illnesses. Neutropenia is a low level of neutrophils, white blood cells that are a healthy body's main defense against infection. Without them, infectious illnesses can continue to spread.
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