Acute Myeloid Leukemia: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of blood-forming cells in the bone marrow. Abnormal immature white blood cells (blasts) fill the bone marrow and spill into the bloodstream. It is the most general type of acute leukemia. It occurs when the bone marrow begins to make blasts, cells that have not yet entirely developed. These blasts usually grow into white blood cells. However, in AML, these cells do not develop and are unable to ward off infections.

General symptoms

The symptoms of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) generally grow over a few weeks, becoming more severe as the number of immature white blood cells (blast cells) in your blood increases. Patients with AML often have several general symptoms. These can include:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Loss of appetite
  • Easily bruised skin
  • Bone and joint pain

Causes of acute myeloid leukaemia

A leukaemia is thought to start first from one abnormal cell. What seems to occur is that definite vital genes, which control how cells divide, multiply and die, are damaged or altered. This makes the cell abnormal. If the abnormal cell survives it may multiply out of control and develop into a leukaemia.

In most cases of Acute myeloid leukemia, the cause why an immature white blood cell becomes abnormal is not known. There are assured risk factors which increase the chance that leukaemia will develop, but these only account for a small number of cases. Risk factors known for AML include:

  • High-dose radiation (for example, previous radiotherapy for another situation).
  • Exposure to the chemical benzene (this is in cigarettes).
  • Some genetic conditions which can increase the risk of having AML in the future. The most common is Down’s syndrome.

Acute myeloid leukemia is not an inherited condition and does not run in families.


Treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia

The aim of treatment is to kill all the abnormal cells. This then allows the bone marrow to function usually again and produce usual blood cells. The major treatment is chemotherapy. A stem cell transplant (SCT) is used in some cases.

The factors which are taken into account include:

  • The exact subtype of AML.
  • Your age, sex and general health.
  • The number of blasts in the blood at diagnosis.
  • How well the condition responds to the initial phase of treatment (see below).
  • Whether the leukaemia is a secondary complication from a previous bone marrow problem.
  • Whether the leukaemia has spread to the brain and/or spinal cord.

On the basis of these factors, people with AML are classed as low-risk, standard-risk or high-risk. That is, the risk of the leukaemia coming back (relapsing) after standard treatment.



AML is a rare disease and affects about 20,000 adults and about 1000 children in the world each year. Most cases happen in people aged over 50. It is vaguely more common in men than in women.

AML is unusual in people under the age of 20.