What is acute leukaemia?

Acute leukaemia occurs when immature white blood cells (blast cells) grow out of control and continue to divide but never mature into normal cells. It develops suddenly and progresses quickly.

The abnormal blast cells are known as leukaemia cells. Because they are immature and abnormal, the leukaemia cells do not carry out the usual function of white blood cells. They also crowd out the normal white blood cells, preventing them from working properly, which leads to an increased risk of infections.

When the bone marrow fills with leukaemia cells, there is little room for healthy red cells and platelets to be produced. This causes a variety of health problems.

Acute leukaemia symptoms

Signs include:

Anaemia – A lack of red blood cells can cause paleness, weakness, tiredness and breathlessness.
Repeated or persistent infections – The lack of normal white blood cells can cause mouth sores, a sore throat, fevers, sweats, coughing, boils, infected cuts or scratches, and frequent and painful passing of urine.
Increased bruising and bleeding – The lack of platelets can cause bruising without any kind of bump or fall, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, heavy periods in women, and small red or purple spots on the skin or mouth (petechiae).

Each year in Australia about 3200 people are diagnosed with a form of leukaemia.
Almost half of those cases are acute leukaemia.
Acute leukaemia accounts for about 1.1% of all cancer cases in Australia.
Leukaemia is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in people under 15.
Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) – More common than ALL with about 900 people diagnosed annually, and it is more frequently diagnosed in men. It is more prevalent in adults than in children and becomes more common with age.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) – Over 300 people are diagnosed each year. It is the most common type of childhood cancer and usually occurs in children 1–4 years old.