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Symptoms, Diagnosis & Risk Factors


Leukemia symptoms begin like the symptoms of many other more common and less severe illnesses. Symptoms and signs may include:

  • Extreme tiredness
  • Shortness of breath during physical activity
  • Pale skin
  • Mild fever or night sweats
  • Slow healing of cuts
  • Excess bleeding
  • Bruises for no clear reason
  • Pinhead-size red spots under the skin
  • Aches in bones or joints
  • Low white cell counts, especially monocytes or neutrophils

People diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia or chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) may not experience any symptoms because the symptoms often come on gradually. Many of these patients learn of their leukemia diagnosis after a regular check-up and blood test. Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpit or groin often cause people to seek medical attention. When symptoms do appear, people with CML complain of tiredness, shortness of breath, night sweats and weight loss.

If you are concerned about persistent symptoms such as a low-grade fever, unexplained weight loss, tiredness or shortness of breath, see a healthcare provider.


A complete blood count (CBC) is used to diagnose leukemia. This blood test may show high or low levels of white cells and may show leukemic cells in the blood. Bone-marrow tests (aspiration and biopsy) are often done to confirm the diagnosis and to look for chromosome abnormalities. These tests identify the leukemia cell-type. A complete blood exam and a number of other tests are used to diagnose the type of leukemia. These tests can be repeated after treatment begins to measure how well the treatment is working.

Risk Factors

There aren’t any real risk factors for most leukemias. Some people who develop acute  myelogenous leukemia have received chemotherapy or radiation therapy for another form of cancer, including lymphoma, or they have Down syndrome or another genetic disease. Other risk factors seem to include exposure to benzene or tobacco smoke.