Leukemia in Children

Leukemia in children is the most common type of cancer in children and teens. This is a cancer of the white blood cells.

Updated: November 3, 2019

Leukemia in children is the most common type of cancer in children and teens. This is a cancer of the white blood cells. Bone marrow produces blood cells. Blood cells include red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs), and platelets.
Leukemia can happen when there is a problem with the production of blood cells. It usually affects the leukocytes, or white blood cells. Leukemia refers to cancers of the WBCs. WBCs are a vital part of your immune system. They are the potent infection fighters which protect your body from bacteria, viruses, and fungi, as well as from abnormal cells and other foreign substances. In leukemia, the WBCs divide too quickly and eventually crowd out normal cells which can not function properly.
WBCs are mostly produced in the bone marrow, but certain types of WBCs are also made in the lymph nodes, spleen, and thymus gland. Once formed, WBCs circulate throughout your body in your blood and lymph which is the fluid that circulates through the lymphatic system. It then concentrated in the lymph nodes and spleen.
It is the most common type of childhood cancer, affecting about 4,000 children a year in the United States.
When the DNA of immature blood cells, mainly white cells, becomes damaged  because of certain abnormalities they get multiplied. The blood cells grow and divide continuously, increasing in numbers. Healthy blood cells die after a while and are replaced by new cells, which are produced in the bone marrow. The abnormal blood cells do not die, there by accumulated, occupying more space. As more cancer cells are produced, they stop the healthy white blood cells from growing and functioning normally, by crowding out space in the blood causing Leukemia in children.

Symptoms of childhood leukemia:

The symptoms of leukemia can vary from one child to another. The symptoms of acute leukemia can appear suddenly but those of chronic leukemia generally develop slowly.
Some symptoms of common childhood diseases can also mislead the disease.The common symptoms of childhood leukemia include the following:

Bruising and bleeding:

A child with leukemia may bleed more than expected after a minor injury or nosebleed. The child may also bruise easily with slow healing capacity. Due to tiny blood vessels that have bled, small red spots on the skin, or petechiae can occur. As the blood's ability to clot depends on healthy blood platelets, a blood test will reveal an abnormally low platelet count in a child with leukemia.

Frequent infections:

WBCs that are present in human body are meant to fight off infection. But the immature WBCs of leukemia are unable to perform that function properly. They are unable to fight off any kind of infection or foreign substance and the immune system may attack other good cells of the body. As a result, a child with leukemia may experience frequent or prolonged bouts of viral or bacterial infections. The symptoms include coughing, fever, and runny nose. Even with the use of antibiotics or other treatment, these infections often show no improvement.

Trouble breathing:

Difficulty breathing can happen when leukemic cells clump around the thymus, which is a gland at the base of the neck.Breathing trouble can also result from swollen lymph nodes in the chest that push up against the windpipe. Coughing or wheezing are common symptoms in this case. Painful breathing is a medical emergency.

Stomachache and poor appetite:

When leukemia cells accumulate in the spleen, liver, and kidneys, enlargement of these organs happens causing stomachache.The enlarged abdominal organs can be felt by a doctor during a physical examination. As a result of this, the child will feel full and unable to eat a normal amount of food causing weight loss. Weight loss can also occur even without an enlarged liver or spleen.


When leukemia cells are accumulated in lymph nodes, it can not function properly. It won't be able to filter the blood cause swelling under your child's arms, in their neck, above the collarbone and in the groin. Swollen lymph nodes of the abdomen or inside of the chest can be detected by a MRI and CT scans. The vein that transports blood from the arms and head to the heart can be pressed sometimes by an enlarged thymus.This pressure can cause blood to pool and lead to swelling of the face and arms. A bluish-red color can occur the head, arms, and upper chest. Headache and dizziness are some of the other symptoms.

Bone and joint pain:

The blood is produced in the bone marrow. The blood cells reproduces at an accelerated rate, leading to severe overcrowding of blood cells in leukemia leading to aches and pains of the bones and joints. Some children with leukemia may complain of lower back pain. Others may develop a limp due to pain in the legs.


Red blood cells (RBCs) in blood help to distribute oxygen throughout the body. Overcrowding makes it difficult to produce enough RBCs. As a result of shortage of good red blood cells, a condition called anemia occurs. The symptoms include fatigue, pale skin, and rapid breathing. Some children also report feeling weak or lightheaded.
The child may slur their speech if there is a reduction in blood flow to their brain. A CBC test will show if your child has an abnormally low RBC count.

Outlook for children with leukemia:

Having some of these symptoms doesn't necessarily indicate the presence of leukemia in your child. Several forms of childhood leukemia exist, and many factors impact the outlook. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment can improve outcome. If you are concerned about any of the symptoms your child has developed, talk to your child's doctor without any delay.
The sooner leukemia is diagnosed and the faster it is treated, the better the chance of recovery. As most of the symptoms resembles other childhood illnesses, a proper diagnosis is necessary.
Regular monitoring, including blood tests and possible bone marrow tests should be done for children who experience remission to ensure the cancer has not returned. Over time, the frequency of the tests can be reduced if the leukemia does not return.

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