Childhood leukaemia symptoms and diagnosis

Updated 10 Aug 2017

There are a range of signs and symptoms your child might get if they have leukaemia.

A lot of them can be hard to spot, as they’re similar to the symptoms they might get for a range of other illnesses, but they may last longer than normal or seem out of the ordinary.

To find out more about the symptoms of different types of childhood leukaemia, see our information on childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and childhood acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)

Signs and symptoms of childhood leukaemia

If your child is diagnosed with leukaemia, there are some signs and symptoms which they may get before their diagnosis. It’s important to remember that not everyone will get all of these. Each child is different, and will have a different experience.

Because leukaemia is rare and symptoms like these are common, it can sometimes take some time to diagnose. Once your doctors do suspect your child may have leukaemia, they’ll act quickly to make sure your child gets the tests and treatment they need.

Symptoms 

Anaemia

This means a low red cell count in the blood. This can cause:

  • persistent tiredness and fatigue
  • breathlessness, even when your child isn’t active
  • dizziness
  • paleness.

Bruising and bleeding

Caused by a low platelet count in the blood, this can mean:

  • Your child is more prone to bruising than usual, which can occur without your child experiencing many bumps and knocks.
  • Your child may experience unusual bleeding or bleeding that takes longer to stop. They may get nosebleeds or bleeding from the gums.
  • Your child might develop a petechial rash. These are round, red or purple spots that appear on the skin that are caused by bleeding underneath the skin.

Infections

Caused by a low white cell count in the blood. This can mean frequent infections and fever, even if there are no clear signs of an infection.

Weight loss

Caused by a high metabolism (the rate we burn energy from food).

Other symptoms

Leukaemia can sometimes cause other symptoms in children; these are a result of the spread of leukaemia cells in the body.

  • The lymph nodes in your child’s neck may swell, which will look and feel like swollen glands.
  • Your child might feel some pain in the stomach area if the liver and spleen enlarge.
  • Your child may complain of bone pain; this is caused by the overcrowding of the leukaemia cells in the bone marrow.
  • Your child may be feeling generally unwell.
  • Your child may have night sweats.

 

Tests to diagnose childhood leukaemia

Your child will have a set of tests to confirm whether they have leukaemia or not. Your doctors diagnose leukaemia by looking at your child’s blood, their bone marrow and their genes. At any time, you can ask your healthcare team to tell you why your child is having a certain test and what the results mean.

Tests

Here are some of the common tests which children have to diagnose leukaemia. Your child might also have tests to help give doctors more information about the type of leukaemia they have.

Full blood count

A full blood count (FBC) measures the number of each type of cell in the blood: red cells, white cells and platelets. It also allows your child’s doctors to look for leukaemia cells in the blood.

Your child will have this test quite often throughout their treatment and you may wish to keep track of the results of their blood counts. If you choose to do this, your child’s consultant or specialist nurse will be able to explain what the results mean.

Bone marrow aspirate and trephine

Your child’s doctor will take a bone marrow sample to see how the blood is working inside your child’s bone marrow. Your child will have this test a number of times throughout their treatment. A small amount of bone marrow is taken from the pelvic bone using a needle (an aspirate). Your child’s doctors will then look at the bone marrow sample under a microscope.

Tests after diagnosis

If your child is diagnosed with leukaemia, the doctors will carry out a number of further tests. These will give them more information about the disease and help them decide on the best course of treatment for your child.

Lumbar puncture

Leukaemia cells can sometimes get into the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (known as cerebrospinal fluid or CSF). A lumbar puncture involves taking a small sample of CSF to check if there are any leukaemia cells in it. Your child’s doctor will very carefully insert a needle between the bones of the lower spine into the space around the spinal cord and remove a few drops of CSF.

Cytogenetic analysis tests

These look for any abnormality in the chromosomes in your child’s leukaemia cells.

> Find out more about cytogenetic testing

Minimal residual disease (MRD) test

The test looks at a bone marrow sample and detects how many leukaemia cells remain in the bone marrow after treatment. When your doctors look at blood cells through a microscope, the lowest number of leukaemia cells they can detect is about one leukaemia cell in 20 normal cells.

The MRD test is much more sensitive and can detect leukaemia cells at levels as low as one leukaemia cell in 100,000 to one million normal cells. The results of the MRD test will help your doctors decide how much treatment your child needs.

Additional tests and scans

There are a number of other tests and scans your child may have throughout their treatment. These will help your doctors to see how the disease is responding to treatment, to look for any complications caused by the condition or its treatment, and to check for other problems such as infection.

PIF memberStandard member