Many symptoms of leukemia in children are also symptoms of common, less serious childhood illnesses. Leukemia can be chronic, and the symptoms may develop slowly, or it can be acute, and the symptoms may appear very quickly.
Childhood leukemia also affects teens. It is the most common type of cancer in children under the age of 15, according to the National Cancer Institute in the United States. Around 4,000 children in the country are affected by leukemia each year.
Leukemia affects the blood cells. It causes white blood cells to develop in a person's bone marrow. These then travel through the bloodstream and suppress the production of healthy blood cells.
A diagnosis of leukemia can be frightening, but survival rates continue to improve.
Image credit: Stephen Kelly, 2019
If a child has any of the following symptoms, and a parent or caregiver suspects leukemia, it is essential to contact a doctor.
Anemia occurs when the body has a shortage of red blood cells.
Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen around the body, and if someone is not producing enough, they may experience:
2. Frequent infections
Children with leukemia have a high white blood cell counts, but most of these cells are not functioning correctly. This is because abnormal cells are replacing healthy white blood cells.
White blood cells help to protect the body and fight off infections.
Recurrent and persistent infections can indicate that a child does not have enough healthy white blood cells.
3. Bruising and bleeding
If a child bruises easily, experiences severe nosebleeds, or bleeds from the gums, this can point to leukemia.
A child with this type of cancer will have a lack of platelets that help to prevent bleeding.
4. Bone or joint pain
If a child seems to be in pain and complains that their bones or joints are sore or achy, this can indicate childhood leukemia.
When leukemia develops, the abnormal cells can collect inside joints or close to the surface of the bones.
In a child with leukemia, swelling can affect various parts of the body, including:
- The abdomen, when abnormal cells collect in the liver and spleen
- The face and arms, when pressure on a vein called the superior vena cava causes blood to pool in the area
- The lymph nodes, when a person notices small lumps forming on the sides of the neck, in the underarms, or on the collarbone
It is important to note that a child with swollen lymph nodes and no additional symptoms is more likely to have an infection than leukemia.
Also, tumors from other types of cancer are more likely to put pressure on the superior vena cava and lead to facial swelling. The swelling will be worse when a child wakes up, and it will improve during the day.
This is called superior vena cava syndrome, and it rarely occurs in cases of leukemia. However, it can be life-threatening, and it requires emergency care.
6. Lack of appetite, stomachache, and weight loss
If leukemia cells have caused swelling in the liver, kidneys, or spleen, these organs can press against the stomach.
The result may be a feeling of fullness or discomfort, a lack of appetite, and subsequent weight loss.
7. Coughing or breathing difficulties
Leukemia can affect parts of the body in and around the chest, such as some lymph nodes or the thymus, a gland located between the lungs.
If these parts of the body swell, they can put pressure on the trachea and make breathing difficult.
Breathing difficulties can also occur if leukemia cells build up in the lung's small blood vessels.
If a child is experiencing difficulty breathing, seek emergency care.
8. Headaches, vomiting, and seizures
If leukemia is affecting the brain or spinal cord, a child may experience:
- difficulty concentrating
- issues with balance
- blurred vision
9. Skin rashes
Leukemia cells that spread to the skin can lead to the appearance of small, dark, rash-like spots. This collection of cells is called a chloroma or a granulocytic sarcoma, and it is very rare.
The bruising and bleeding that characterize leukemia can also cause tiny spots called petechiae to appear. These may also look like a rash.
10. Extreme fatigue
In rare cases, leukemia leads to very severe weakness and exhaustion that can result in slurred speech.
This occurs when leukemia cells collect in the blood, causing the blood to thicken. The blood may be so thick that circulation slows through small vessels in the brain.
11. Feeling generally unwell
A child may not be able to describe their symptoms in detail, but they may appear to be generally ill.
When the cause of a child's illness is unclear, make an appointment with a doctor.
The earliest signs of leukemia can be hard to spot.
They can also vary from child to child, not all children with leukemia show the symptoms listed above.
Early symptoms also depend on whether a child has acute or chronic leukemia. The symptoms of acute leukemia often appear quickly, and they may be more noticeable. Those of chronic leukemia may be milder and develop gradually over time.
If a parent or caregiver notices any of the symptoms above, it is best to take the child to a doctor as soon as possible. A prompt diagnosis can ensure that the child receives the right treatment quickly.
However, many of these symptoms are common and can indicate a range of illnesses. The doctor will perform various tests and assessments before making a diagnosis.
There are different types of childhood leukemia. A child's outlook will depend on the type and a range of other factors.
Regardless, catching and treating leukemia early can improve the outcome. It is important for a parent or caregiver to discuss any concerns about a child's health with a doctor as soon as possible.
Doctors can now treat many cases of childhood leukemia successfully. Methods of treatment are advancing, and survival rates for some forms of the disease continue to improve.