Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) can sometimes cause a number of further complications.

Some of the main problems people with the condition may experience are outlined below.

Infections

People with CLL usually have a weakened immune system and are more vulnerable to infections because they have a lack of healthy, infection-fighting white blood cells.

Treatment with chemotherapy can also further weaken the immune system.

If you have CLL, it's a good idea to:

  • report any possible symptoms of an infection to your GP or care team immediately – things to look out for include a high temperature (fever), aching muscles, diarrhoea or headaches
  • ensure your vaccinations are up-to-date – speak to your GP or care team for advice about any additional vaccines you might need, as some aren't safe if you have a weak immune system
  • avoid close contact with anyone who has an infection – even if it's an infection to which you were previously immune, such as chickenpox

You may also be prescribed regular doses of medications such as antibiotics to help reduce the risk of infection.

Richter's syndrome

In up to 1 in every 20 people with CLL, the condition will change to become very similar to an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This is called Richter's transformation or Richter's syndrome.

Symptoms of Richter's syndrome include:

Richter syndrome is usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy and other powerful medicines.

The Cancer Research UK website has more information on Richter's syndrome.

Autoimmune haemolytic anaemia

Around 1 in every 10 people with CLL will develop a condition called autoimmune haemolytic anaemia.

This is where the immune system starts to attack and destroy red blood cells. It can cause severe anaemia, making you feel breathless and easily tired.

It's usually treated with steroid medication.

Psychological effects

Being diagnosed with CLL can be very distressing and difficult to take in at first, particularly as it can't necessarily be cured and you may be advised to wait for it to get worse before starting treatment.

Having to wait years to see how the condition develops can also be very stressful and make you feel anxious or depressed. Speak to your GP or care team if you're finding it difficult to cope.

You may also find it useful to talk to other people who are living with leukaemia. Your GP or care team will be able to provide you with the details of support groups in your area.

Macmillan Cancer Support provides an excellent level of help and support. Their helpline number is 0808 808 00 00, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm.

Page last reviewed: 22/03/2016

Next review due: 22/03/2018