Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells.It progresses rapidly and aggressively and requires immediate treatment. Both adults and children can be affected.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is very rare, with around 650 people diagnosed with the condition each year in the UK. Half of all cases diagnosed are in adults and half in children.

Although rare, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is the most common type of childhoodleukaemia. About 85% of the cases that affect children occur in those younger than 15 (mostly between the ages of two and five). It tends to be more common in males than females.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is different to other types of leukaemia, includingacute myeloid leukaemia,chronic lymphocytic leukaemiaand chronic myeloid leukaemia.

This page covers:

What happens in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia


When to get medical advice





What happens in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

All of the blood cells in the body are produced by bone marrow, a spongy material found inside bones.

Bone marrow produces specialised cells called stem cells, which have the ability to develop into three important types of blood cells:

  • red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body
  • white blood cells which help fight infection
  • platelets which help stop bleeding

Normally, bone marrow doesn't release stem cells into the blood until they are fully developed blood cells. But in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, large numbers of white blood cells are released before they are ready. Theseare known as blast cells.

As the number of blast cells increases, the number of red blood cells and platelet cells decreases. This causes the symptoms of anaemia, such as tiredness, breathlessness and an increased risk of excessive bleeding.

Also, blast cells are less effective than mature white blood cells at fighting bacteria and viruses, making you more vulnerable to infection.

Symptoms of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemiausually starts slowly before rapidly becoming severe as the number of immature white blood cells in your blood increases.

Most of the symptoms are caused by the lack of healthy blood cells in your blood supply. Symptoms include:

  • pale skin
  • feeling tired and breathless
  • repeated infections over a short space of time
  • unusual and frequent bleeding, such as bleeding gums or nosebleeds
  • high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • night sweats
  • bone and joint pain
  • easily bruised skin
  • swollen lymph nodes (glands)
  • abdominal pain caused by a swollen liver or spleen
  • unexplained weight loss
  • a purple skin rash (purpura)

In some cases, the affected cells can spread from your bloodstream into your central nervous system. This can cause a series of neurological symptoms (related to the brain and nervous system), including:

  • headaches
  • seizures (fits)
  • vomiting
  • blurred vision
  • dizziness

When to get medical advice

If you or your child has some or even all of the symptoms listed above, it's still highly unlikely that acute leukaemia is the cause. However, see your GP as soon as possible because any condition that causes these symptoms needs prompt investigation and treatment.

Other treatments you may need includeantibiotics and blood transfusions. In some cases, a bone marrow transplant may also be needed to achieve a cure.

Almost all children will achieve remission (a period of time where they're free from symptoms), and 85% will be completely cured.

The outlook for adults with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is less promising. Around 40% of people aged between 25 and 64 will live for five years or more after receiving their diagnosis. In those aged 65 or over, around 15% will live for five years or more after being diagnosed.

Cancer Research UK has more detailed survival statistics for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 13 Oct 2016