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11 Early Warning Signs of Leukemia in Kids: What to Look For

26 Nov 2023
11 Early Warning Signs of Leukemia in Kids: What to Look For

Childhood leukemia makes up approximately a quarter (24.9%) of all new cases of childhood cancer. It’s also the predominant cancer in children and teenagers, accounting for a third of all cancers within this age range in the US, according to the American Cancer Society. It is less common in girls than in boys. It also tends to be somewhat more prevalent among Hispanic and white children compared to African-American and Asian-American children. Although a leukemia diagnosis can be unsettling, survival rates are becoming progressively better. Let’s take a closer look at the signs and symptoms of leukemia in kids.

What Leukemia Is

Leukemia is a kind of cancer that starts in the bone marrow, the soft inside of certain bones where new blood cells form. Most times, it begins in white blood cells. When these white blood cells grow too much and take up space meant for regular blood cells, the body doesn't work well. The leukemia cells spread fast in the blood and then move to other parts of the body. 

Early Symptoms of Leukemia in Kids

Catching the early signs of leukemia can prove challenging – not all kids show the same symptoms. Many of these symptoms are general and could point to various illnesses. A comprehensive array of tests and evaluations will be conducted by a doctor before confirming a diagnosis. If a parent or caregiver notices any of these symptoms, consult a pediatrician. Timely diagnosis is crucial for swift, accurate treatment. Early leukemia symptoms in kids may include the following.

Bleeding or bruising

In some cases where a child shows frequent bruising, has severe nosebleeds, or has bleeding from the gums, leukemia might be a possibility. Such symptoms can be indicative of low platelet levels, a type of blood cell that’s essential for clotting and preventing bleeding.

Lots of infections

White blood cells help the body defend itself against germs. Leukemia-afflicted kids frequently have elevated white blood cell counts. However, the majority of these white blood cells are abnormal and unable to perform their intended functions. There aren’t enough healthy white blood cells to defend the body against germs. Because of this, kids with leukemia may get frequent or lingering infections. 

General malaise

Sometimes, kids might not be able to explain exactly how they feel, but they could seem generally sick. They could also have a lot of headaches that don't have a clear reason. If you're not sure why your child is feeling unwell, it's a good idea to schedule a visit to the doctor.

Weight loss or loss of appetite

When leukemia cells make the liver, kidneys, or spleen swell, these organs can push on the stomach. This can make a child feel like their stomach is full or uncomfortable, and they might not want to eat much. This could lead to losing weight.

Joint or bone pain

If a child frequently says their bones or joints hurt and they seem to be in pain, it’s possible it might be an indication of childhood leukemia. With leukemia, the abnormal cells can gather near the outside of bones or inside joints.

Extreme tiredness

Sometimes, but not often, leukemia can cause extreme weakness and tiredness that gets so bad it affects how a child talks. This happens when leukemia cells build up in the blood, making the blood thicker. The blood might become so thick that it doesn't flow well through tiny blood vessels in the brain.


In a child with leukemia, swelling can happen in different parts of the body, such as:

    • In the belly, when strange cells gather in the liver or spleen.
    • In the face and arms, if pressure on a vein named the superior vena cava causes blood to gather there.
    • In the lymph nodes, creating small bumps on the sides of the neck, under the arms, or around the collarbone, where lymph nodes are.

It's important to know that a child with swollen lymph nodes but no other symptoms is more likely to have an infection other than leukemia. Also, lumps from other cancer types could press on the superior vena cava and cause face swelling. This swelling would be worse in the morning and get better as the day goes on. This is called superior vena cava syndrome and is rare in leukemia cases. However, it can be very dangerous and needs urgent medical attention.

11 Early Warning Signs of Leukemia in Kids: What to Look For

Other Signs of Childhood Leukemia

In some instances, a child may also display more pronounced health issues. These may include the following:


When leukemia cells reach the skin, they can cause small, dark spots that look like a rash. Doctors might call this collection of cells a chloroma or granulocytic sarcoma, but it's quite uncommon. The bruising and bleeding linked to leukemia can also create tiny skin spots known as petechiae, which may resemble a rash.

Seizures or vomiting

When leukemia impacts the brain or spinal cord, a child might undergo:

    • Weakness
    • Seizures 
    • Vomiting
    • Trouble focusing
    • Problems with balance
    • Blurry vision


Anemia happens when the body doesn't have enough red blood cells. These cells carry oxygen throughout the body, so if there aren't enough, a child might feel:

    • Tired
    • Weak
    • Dizzy
    • Short of breath
    • Have headaches
    • Have pale skin
    • Feel extra cold

Trouble breathing

Leukemia can impact areas in and around the chest, like certain lymph nodes or the thymus, a gland between the lungs. If these parts swell, they might press on the windpipe and make breathing hard. Breathing problems could also happen if leukemia cells gather in the tiny blood vessels of the lungs. If a child has trouble breathing, get emergency help.

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Once again, it’s important to note that most of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than leukemia. That said, if a parent notices their child often having one or more of these symptoms, they should have a conversation with a pediatrician. The pediatrician might do a test called a complete blood count (CBC) to check if the child's red or white blood cell counts are unusual. If they are, the next usual step is to see a pediatric oncologist for more tests.

Diagnosing Leukemia in Kids

Doctors often diagnose leukemia in kids by doing tests like bone marrow or lymph node biopsies, lumbar punctures, X-rays, ultrasounds, or special lab tests. If any of these tests show that a child has leukemia, the oncologist will figure out the type of leukemia. Usually, kids with leukemia have either acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) or acute myeloid leukemia (AML). After that, the cancer will be put into a more specific category.

The Takeaway

There are various kinds of childhood leukemia. A child's chances of getting better depend on the type and a number of other factors. However, if leukemia is found and treated early, it can help the child their prognosis. It's important for parents or caregivers to talk to a doctor about any worries about their child's health as soon as possible. Doctors can now treat a lot of childhood leukemia cases, and many children get better. The treatments are getting better, and more kids are surviving some types of leukemia. A leukemia diagnosis can be really tough for your family. But remember, you're not alone. There are lots of resources out there to help you through this difficult period. You also can find additional information and support online:

Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. Please contact your health provider if you have any medical questions or concerns about your child or yourself.

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