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Leukemia in Children: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Leukemia, a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow, can be particularly devastating when it occurs in children. Understanding the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment options is essential for parents, caregivers, and medical professionals to provide timely and effective care. Leukemia is a cancer of the blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system. In children, it accounts for about 30% of all cancers, making it the most common type of childhood cancer. The disease causes the production of abnormal white blood cells, which can interfere with the body's ability to fight infection and cause other serious health issues.


Types of Leukemia in Children

There are several types of leukemia, but the two most common in children are:

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL): This is the most common type of leukemia in children, accounting for about 75% of cases. ALL affects the lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, and progresses rapidly.

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML): AML accounts for about 20% of childhood leukemia cases. It affects the myeloid cells, which are responsible for producing red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. AML also progresses quickly.

Symptoms of Leukemia in Children

The symptoms of leukemia in children can vary depending on the type and stage of the disease. However, some common signs and symptoms include:

Frequent Infections: Due to the decreased number of healthy white blood cells, children with leukemia are more susceptible to infections.

Unexplained Fevers: Persistent or recurrent fevers that cannot be attributed to other illnesses.

Fatigue and Weakness: A decrease in red blood cells can lead to anemia, resulting in fatigue and weakness.

Pale Skin: Anemia can also cause pallor.

Easy Bruising or Bleeding: A low platelet count can lead to easy bruising, frequent nosebleeds, or bleeding gums.

Bone and Joint Pain: Leukemia cells can accumulate in the bone marrow, causing pain in bones and joints.

Swollen Lymph Nodes: Painless swelling of the lymph nodes, particularly in the neck, armpit, or groin.

Abdominal Pain or Swelling: Leukemia cells can accumulate in the liver and spleen, causing pain or swelling in the abdomen.

Loss of Appetite and Weight Loss: A decrease in appetite and subsequent weight loss can occur.

Causes of Leukemia in Children

The exact cause of leukemia in children is not well understood, but several factors may contribute to the development of the disease:

Genetic Factors

Certain genetic conditions and inherited disorders can increase the risk of developing leukemia. For example, children with Down syndrome have a higher risk of developing both ALL and AML. Other genetic conditions, such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, and certain inherited immune system disorders, can also increase the risk.

Environmental Factors

While the influence of environmental factors on childhood leukemia is still under investigation, certain exposures may play a role. These can include:

Radiation Exposure: High levels of radiation exposure, such as from radiation therapy for other cancers, can increase the risk.

Chemical Exposure: Prolonged exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene (found in tobacco smoke and industrial emissions), may increase the risk.

Parental Exposure: Exposure to certain chemicals or radiation by parents before conception or during pregnancy may be linked to an increased risk.

Viral Infections

Some research suggests that certain viral infections, such as Epstein-Barr virus or human T-cell leukemia virus, may increase the risk of developing leukemia. However, more research is needed to establish a clear connection.

Diagnosis of Leukemia in Children

Diagnosing leukemia in children typically involves a combination of medical history, physical examination, blood tests, and other diagnostic procedures.

Initial Assessment

If leukemia is suspected, the doctor will conduct a thorough medical history and physical examination. They will look for signs of infection, anemia, and abnormal bleeding, and check for swollen lymph nodes, liver, and spleen.

Blood Tests

Blood tests are crucial in diagnosing leukemia. The following tests are commonly performed:

Complete Blood Count (CBC): A CBC measures the levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Abnormal levels can indicate leukemia.

Peripheral Blood Smear: A sample of blood is examined under a microscope to look for abnormal cells.

Bone Marrow Aspiration and Biopsy

If blood tests suggest leukemia, a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy are usually performed. During this procedure, a small amount of bone marrow is removed, typically from the hip bone, and examined for leukemia cells.

Lumbar Puncture: A lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, may be performed to check if leukemia cells have spread to the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

Imaging Studies

Imaging studies, such as X-rays, ultrasounds, or CT scans, may be conducted to assess the extent of the disease and check for any other abnormalities.

Treatment of Leukemia in Children

The treatment of leukemia in children depends on the type and severity of the disease, as well as the child's age and overall health. Treatment typically involves a combination of therapies, including:

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the primary treatment for most types of childhood leukemia. It involves the use of powerful drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. Chemotherapy can be administered orally, intravenously, or directly into the cerebrospinal fluid.

Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to target and kill cancer cells. It is sometimes used in combination with chemotherapy, particularly if leukemia cells have spread to the brain or spinal cord.

Targeted Therapy: Targeted therapy involves drugs that specifically target cancer cells without harming healthy cells. These drugs work by interfering with specific molecules involved in cancer cell growth and survival.

Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy helps the body's immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. CAR-T cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy that has shown promise in treating certain types of childhood leukemia.

Stem Cell Transplant: A stem cell transplant, also known as a bone marrow transplant, involves replacing diseased bone marrow with healthy stem cells. This procedure is typically used for children with high-risk or relapsed leukemia.


Leukemia in children is a challenging diagnosis, but advances in medical research and treatment options have significantly improved outcomes for many young patients. For the comprehensive leukemia treatment in India, American Oncology Institute is recognized as the top multi-disciplinary oncology hospital known for its expertise and advanced care.