Leukaemia, acute myeloid 


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Leukaemia is cancer of the white blood cells. Acute leukaemia means the condition progresses rapidly and aggressively and requires immediate treatment.

Acute leukaemia is classified according to the type of white blood cells that are affected by cancer. There are two main types:

  • lymphocytes – mostly used to fight viral infections
  • myeloid cells – which perform a number of different functions, such as fighting bacterial infections, defending the body against parasites and preventing the spread of tissue damage 

These pages focus on acute myeloid leukaemia, which is cancer of the myeloid cells. The following other types of leukaemia are covered elsewhere:

Warning signs of acute leukaemia

Symptoms of acute myeloid leukaemia usually begin slowly before rapidly getting severe as the number of immature white blood cells in your blood increases (see below for an explanation of this). Symptoms include:

  • pale skin
  • tiredness
  • breathlessness
  • having repeated infections over a short space of time
  • unusual and frequent bleeding

Read more about the symptoms of acute myeloid leukaemia.

What happens in acute leukaemia

All of the blood cells in the body are produced by bone marrow. Bone marrow is a spongy material found inside the bones. It is important because it produces special cells called stem cells.

Stem cells are very useful because they have the ability to create other specialised cells that carry out important functions. The stem cells in bone marrow produce 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

Usually the bone marrow produces stem cells that are allowed to mature into "adult" blood cells. However, in cases of acute leukaemia, the affected bone marrow begins to release a large number of immature white blood cells that are known as blast cells.

The immature white blood cells begin to rapidly disrupt the normal balance of cells in the blood. This means that the body does not have enough red blood cells or platelet cells. This can cause symptoms of anaemia, such as tiredness, and increase the risk of excessive bleeding.

Also, as the white blood cells are not properly formed, they become less effective at fighting bacteria and viruses, making you more vulnerable to infection.

Acute leukaemia that is left untreated can prove fatal, as the blood supply will malfunction.

How common is acute myeloid leukaemia?

Acute leukaemia is an uncommon type of cancer. In the UK, around 7,600 people are diagnosed each year with leukaemia. Of those, about 2,300 people have acute myeloid leukaemia.

Acute myeloid leukaemia is more common in people aged 65 or over. For reasons that are not fully understood, it is more common in males than females.

The cause or causes of acute myeloid leukaemia are uncertain, but known risk factors include:

  • exposure to high levels of radiation
  • exposure to benzene, a chemical used in manufacturing that is also found in cigarettes

Read more about the causes of acute myeloid leukaemia.


The outlook for people with acute myeloid leukaemia varies depending on the type they have. Some types are more challenging to treat than others. Younger people with the condition tend to have a better outcome than older people.

Chemotherapy is usually given to treat acute myeloid leukaemia. A bone marrow transplant may also be needed to achieve a cure. Read more about the treatment of acute myeloid leukaemia.

If a cure is not possible, there is a risk that the lack of healthy blood cells can make the person extremely vulnerable to life-threatening infections (due to the lack of white blood cells) or uncontrolled and serious bleeding (due to the lack of platelets).

Page last reviewed: 01/06/2012

Next review due: 01/06/2014


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The 8 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

bloodanon said on 24 April 2012


SCA is caused by a defect in the gene that codes for haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is only turned on in your red blood cells.
Leukaemia is when your white blood cells go wrong.
Becuase your white blood cells never need to turn on the haemoglobin gene, it doesn't matter to them if it is defective.

SCA doesn't see to alter your chances of getting leukaemia according to this report.
Am J Hematol. 2003 Dec;74(4):249-53.
Malignancy in patients with sickle cell disease.
Schultz WH, Ware RE.

short answer: the gene mutation that causes SCA is unrelated to cancer of your white blood cells (leukaemia)

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chatsubo said on 16 September 2011

Haematologist / Nickysayshello

The information re incidence and mortality stats are correct, and if you check the latest data you will see an even tighter correlation.

ONS Death Stats for 2009 give 2,094 deaths from AML in 2009 in E&W

Cancer Research give 2,095 new cases of AML in 2008 (last year for which data is available.)

Spooky I know, but then as they teach you in the first week of medical school incidence isn't the same as prevalence.

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Haematologist said on 03 September 2011

Nickysayshello seems to be saying that each year all the new cases and 100 of the old ones die. The figures given cannot all be correct. Please could NHS Choices try to sort this out.

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Nicksayshello said on 22 August 2011

I assume that the 1900 death consists of new (1800) and existing (100+) cases of AML.

The cure rate statement seems quite straight forward though.

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Haematologist said on 01 August 2011

"Of these cases of acute leukaemia, about 1,800 are AMLs"

"Some types of AML have a 75% cure rate, while others only have a 20% cure rate"

" there is an average of 1,900 deaths from AML".


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Diddi said on 05 January 2011

my big sis has it, and has been told she may die in the next 52 hrs or live forever without rthe leukemia, what are the chances of her survival????

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bec89 said on 05 January 2010

My 11 year old sister was diagnosed with ALL leukaemia in christmas 08 and now she has finished her first year of treatment, and has started her second year. The only thing i wanted to mention was that we wanted to know as a family, of what were the chances of it coming back?
We were told 25% (obviously this was for my sister im not sure on other cases). After this we chatted to some of the parents whos childrens ALL leukaemia had come back over a few years. None of them were told what the chances of it coming back was. I think parents should be made aware of this in the same way you are told about the chances of being infertile. I mean this is a constructive way and i could never show my appreciation enough towards the NHS staff at St James ward 10.

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michjohnson said on 01 September 2009

I would like to know if leukaemia is related to sickle cell anemia.


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