Introduction 

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

Acute leukaemia is classified according to the type of white blood cells that are affected. 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 (AML), which is an aggressive cancer of the myeloid cells. The following types of leukaemia are covered separately:

Signs and symptoms of acute myeloid leukaemia

The symptoms of AML usually develop over a few weeks, and become increasingly more severe. Symptoms can include:

  • pale skin
  • tiredness
  • breathlessness
  • frequent infections
  • unusual and frequent bleeding, such as bleeding gums or nosebleeds

In more advanced cases, AML can make you extremely vulnerable to life-threatening infections or serious internal bleeding.

Read more about the symptoms of AML and complications of AML.

Seeking medical advice

You should see your GP if you or your child have possible symptoms of AML. Although it is highly unlikely that leukaemia is the cause, these symptoms should be investigated.

If your GP thinks you may have leukaemia, they will arrange for blood tests to check your white blood cells. If this test suggests there is a problem, you will be urgently referred to a haematologist (a specialist in treating blood conditions) for further tests and any necessary treatment.

Read more about diagnosing AML.

What causes acute myeloid leukaemia?

AML occurs when specialised cells called stem cells, which are found in the bone marrow (a spongy material inside the bones), produce excessive numbers of immature white blood cells. These immature cells are known as blast cells.

Blast cells don't have the infection-fighting properties of healthy white blood cells, and their excessive production can lead to a decrease in the number of red blood cells (which carry oxygen in the blood) and platelets (cells that help the blood to clot).

It is not clear exactly why this happens, although a number of factors that can increase your risk of developing AML have been identified. These include:

  • exposure to very high levels of radiation, including previous treatment with radiotherapy
  • exposure to benzene  a chemical used in manufacturing that is also found in cigarette smoke
  • having an underlying blood disorder or genetic condition (such as Down's syndrome)

Read more about the causes of AML.

Who is affected

AML is an uncommon type of cancer. Around 2,600 people are diagnosed with the condition each year in the UK.

AML can develop at any age, but it's more common in people over the age of 60.

How acute myeloid leukaemia is treated

AML is an aggressive type of cancer that can develop rapidly, so treatment usually needs to begin soon after a diagnosis is confirmed.

The main treatment for AML is chemotherapy, which is used to kill as many leukaemia cells in your body as possible and reduce the risk of the condition coming back (relapsing).

In some cases, intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy may be needed, in combination with a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, to achieve a cure.

Read more about treating AML.

Outlook

The outlook for AML largely depends on the specific type of AML you have, your age and general health.

There are many subtypes of AML, which are classified according to a number of features – such as the specific genetic changes in the leukaemia cells. Some types of AML are more challenging to treat than others.

Even if treatment is initially successful, there remains a significant risk that the condition will return at some point during the next few years. If this happens, treatment may need to be repeated.

A number of recent medical trials have suggested that almost half of those aged under 60 diagnosed with AML will live for at least five years, and in some types of AML, such as acute promyeloid leukaemia (APML), around 85% will live for at least five years.

In general, the outlook for children with AML tends to be better than that of adults diagnosed with the condition.

Page last reviewed: 23/05/2014

Next review due: 23/05/2016