Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) can cause eye symptoms, such as swelling, bleeding, and eye infections.

AML starts in the bone marrow, which is where blood cells form. The cancer can quickly spread to the blood and throughout the entire body.

Eye symptoms can be concerning, and they may be a sign that a person’s cancer has spread. In other cases, it is simply a side effect of treatments and associated blood abnormalities.

Read more to learn about what eye symptoms look like, their causes, and when to contact a doctor.

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A primary cause is the direct spread of cancer to the eye area. Secondary causes may also contribute to eye symptoms.

Direct causes

If AML spreads to the brain and spinal cord, it can affect the optic nerve. It may also cause swelling of the optic disc. This is the structure on the retina, which is at the back of the eye, where it meets the optic nerve.

AML can also spread to the front of the eye, which can cause bleeding.

Additionally, it can extend to the orbit. This is the bony cavity where the eye sits. If this happens, a person may experience bleeding or a mass in the orbit.

Secondary causes

The eye symptoms from secondary causes may include:

  • bleeding from the retina or back part of the eye
  • blockages in blood vessels of the eye
  • infections in the eye
  • blurred vision
  • loss of vision

Secondary causes of eye symptoms include side effects from AML treatments. These may include:

  • chemotherapy
  • steroids
  • bone marrow transplant
  • total body radiation therapy

AML can cause atypical blood conditions and other health issues that may contribute to eye symptoms. These include:

  • thrombocytopenia, a low blood platelet count
  • anemia, a low red blood cell count
  • hyperviscosity, increased thickness of the blood
  • leukostasis, when large white blood cells clog tiny blood vessels

A 2019 study notes that about half of people with AML have some type of eye symptoms.

Manifestations in the back of the eye are much more common than those in the front of the eye. Of these, retinal bleeding is the most common.

AML can cause a wide variety of symptoms. Some are general, but others are directly associated with the effects of the condition on blood cells.

Generalized symptoms include:

  • tiredness
  • fever
  • weight loss
  • night sweats

Symptoms from a low red blood cell count include:

  • feeling cold
  • tiredness
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • pale skin
  • headaches
  • shortness of breath

Symptoms from low numbers of white blood cells include:

  • frequent infections
  • long lasting infections

Symptoms from low numbers of platelets, which are small blood fragments that help the blood clot, include:

  • excess bleeding
  • heavy menstrual periods
  • bruising
  • severe or frequent nosebleeds
  • bleeding gums

Learn more about the signs of AML.

There are various risk factors for AML, but many people with the condition do not have them. Even if an individual has risk factors, it is very challenging to determine if those factors have caused it.

AML happens when DNA changes in the bone marrow cells make them produce leukemia cells. The cancerous bone marrow cells grow out of control or do not mature normally.

These genetic changes can either be inherited or acquired during a person’s lifetime. In most cases, the changes are acquired. Possible causes include exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals, but many genetic changes are random events that happen without a known cause.

Additionally, DNA changes are more frequent as people age. This makes AML more prevalent in older individuals.

Various conditions can cause blurred vision and other eye symptoms. However, eye symptoms may be a sign of AML or other less serious conditions, so it is always a good idea to contact a doctor. They can evaluate a person’s symptoms and determine the cause of the symptoms.

It is worth noting that many AML symptoms are general and are symptoms of many other common conditions. If a person has eye symptoms and other AML symptoms, it does not necessarily mean a person has AML. There are many other possible causes.

A doctor can make a diagnosis based on an exam, medical history, and lab tests.

Eye symptoms happen in about half of people with AML, a type of blood cancer. The symptoms can either be caused by the cancer itself or by secondary causes, such as cancer treatments.

If a person is experiencing worrying eye symptoms, they should contact a doctor. The doctor can evaluate a person’s symptoms and medical history to determine the cause.