Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Leukaemia in children

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Leukaemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood.
  • There are many types of leukaemia.
  • Most childhood leukaemias are acute — they appear fast and grow quickly.
  • If you are worried that your child has symptoms of leukaemia, talk to your child’s doctor.

What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood. It starts in the bone marrow, where blood cells are made, and spreads to the bloodstream.

Leukaemia happens when the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells (lymphocytes). Lymphocytes are a part of the immune system and help to fight infection.

Types of leukaemia

There are many types of leukaemia. They ‘re named after:

  • how fast the cancer cells grow
  • the types of cells involved

They may be:

  • acute — appearing fast and growing quickly
  • chronic — appearing gradually and growing slowly

Most childhood leukaemias are acute.

There are several types of leukaemia seen in children, including the following:

  • Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), also called acute lymphocytic leukaemia — this is the most common type of leukaemia in children.
  • Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), also called acute myeloblastic leukaemia.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) — this is rare in children but common in adults.
  • Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) — which is very rare in children but more common in teenagers.

About 8 out of 10 children with leukaemia have acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. These children are often between 2 and 4 years of age.

Watch this video from Cancer Australia about what it can be like to have cancer as a child:

What are the symptoms of childhood leukaemia?

Signs of leukaemia may include:

  • fever and night sweats
  • unexplained bruising and bleeding — small red spots under the skin
  • lumps in the neck, underarms, stomach or groin, or around the eyes
  • pale skin
  • dry skin rash

Other symptoms of leukaemia are:

  • pain in the bones or joints, or under the ribs
  • tiredness or weakness
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling of fullness or swelling in the abdomen (tummy)

The symptoms of leukaemia are like that of other common conditions. If you notice any of these symptoms, it doesn't mean that your child has leukaemia. But it's a good idea to see your doctor.

What causes childhood leukaemia?

The exact causes of leukaemia in children are not known, but it’s likely that several factors are involved.

Factors that may put some children at higher risk of leukaemia are:

  • family history of leukaemia
  • genetic conditions — certain conditions can increase a child’s risk of developing leukaemia, such as Down syndrome
  • exposure to radiation — children x-rayed before they were born and those who have previously had radiation therapy to treat cancer
  • previous chemotherapy

No one is to blame if a child develops cancer. It’s not because of something they, or their parents, did.

When should I see my doctor?

If you are worried that your child has symptoms of leukaemia, talk to your child’s doctor. The earlier cancer is found, the better.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is childhood leukaemia diagnosed?

Many symptoms of childhood leukaemia can be caused by other illnesses. To make a definite diagnosis of leukaemia, several tests need to be done.

Your doctor will most likely give your child a physical examination and take a sample of their blood. This will be examined under a microscope.

More tests will be done if the blood test shows:

  • large numbers of abnormal white blood cells
  • low numbers of healthy blood cells

There are several other tests that can be done to confirm the diagnosis of leukaemia, such as:

A bone marrow biopsy uses a syringe to take a sample of bone marrow, usually from the hip bone, for examination under a microscope and genetic testing.

During a lumbar puncture a needle is put into the space between the bones of the lower back. Fluid from around the spinal cord is removed for examination under a microscope.

Staging and further tests

The 'stage' of leukaemia describes how far the cancer has spread. Medical imaging tests can help with staging. These can include:

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is childhood leukaemia treated?

The treatment for leukaemia depends on:

  • the age of your child
  • whether the cancer has spread to their spinal fluid

The main treatment given to children with leukaemia are:

Other treatments your child may get are:

  • antibiotics to prevent infections
  • blood products to restore their blood

Children with leukaemia usually need treatment for 2 to 3 years, as well as ongoing regular check-ups.

What are the side effects of treatment?

Many cancer drugs have unwanted effects (side effects). This is because they damage normal cells as well as killing the cancer cells.

The side effects can vary between children even if they receive the same treatment.

Treatments for leukaemia in children can cause a range of short-term side effects, such as:

  • hair loss
  • bruising and bleeding
  • infections
  • nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting
  • tiredness

Longer-term effects, called 'late effects', can develop any time after treatment. These depend on the type and amount of medicine your child receives. Ongoing check-ups are needed to check for these.

Living with childhood leukaemia

It's important that children with leukaemia live as normal a life as possible. Whenever they feel well enough, they should be encouraged to do their usual activities. This includes going to school or day care. This can provide a sense of normalcy and hope for the future.

Can childhood leukaemia be prevented?

No — because the causes of childhood leukaemia aren’t fully understood, it’s not possible to prevent the disease.

Complications of childhood leukaemia

You may be worried about how treatment will affect your child’s fertility (ability to have their own children). You doctor will discuss this with you before treatment starts.

Resources and support

For more information and support, try these resources.

Information about leukaemia

Family support

Caring for a child with leukaemia can be very challenging and stressful. Many support services exist to help families. These include Cancer Councils in each state and territory (call 131120), and the Leukaemia Foundation.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2023

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) - Leukaemia Foundation

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) Listen What is acute myeloid leukaemia? Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Children and blood cancer - Leukaemia Foundation

Children and blood cancer Listen It is not easy to tell a child about a diagnosis of blood cancer

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Juvenile myelomonocytic leukaemia (JMML) - Leukaemia Foundation

Juvenile myelomonocytic leukaemia (JMML) Listen What is juvenile myelomonocytic leukaemia (JMML)? JMML is a very rare childhood blood cancer

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Leukaemia | Cancer Australia Childrens Cancers

Leukaemia is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It occurs when the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells (lymphocytes), which are part of the body’s immune system to fight infections. Find out more on leukaemia, including the types, risk factors, symptoms and treatment…

Read more on Cancer Australia website

Childhood blood cancers - Leukaemia Foundation

Childhood blood cancers Listen If you have recently discovered your child has a blood cancer the doctor in charge of your child’s treatment has probably already talked to you about their diagnosis and tried to explain how it is likely to affect your child

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Childhood acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) - Leukaemia Foundation

Childhood acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) Listen What is childhood AML? Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) - Leukaemia Foundation

Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) Listen What is childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia? Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is a type of cancer that affects immature lymphocytes developing in the bone marrow

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Leukaemia - Leukaemia Foundation

Leukaemia Listen What is leukaemia? Leukaemia is the general name given to a group of cancers that develop in the bone marrow

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) - Leukaemia Foundation

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) Listen What is acute lymphoblastic leukaemia? Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Leukaemia - Targeting Cancer

About Radiation Oncology What is Radiation Oncology? What is Radiation Therapy? Benefits and Effectiveness Side Effects of Radiation Therapy Treatment Process Radiation Oncology Team Radiation Oncologists Radiation Therapists Radiation Oncology Medical Physicists Radiation Oncology Nurses GPs/Health Professionals FAQs Costs of radiation therapy in Australia Useful Resources Radiation Therapy External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT) Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) Image-Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT) Particle Therapy Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS) Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT) Brachytherapy Brachytherapy for Prostate Cancer Brachytherapy for Cervix Cancer Brachytherapy for Uterine Cancer Treatment By Cancer Type Benign Disease Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) Pituitary Adenoma Meningioma Thyroid Eye Disease Vestibular Schwannoma (Acoustic Neuroma) Bladder Cancer Brain Cancer Breast Cancer Cervix Cancer Colorectal Cancer Head and Neck Cancer Leukaemia Liver Cancer Lung Cancer Lymphoma Oesophageal Cancer Pancreatic Cancer Palliative Treatment Prostate Cancer Sarcomas Skin Cancer and Melanoma Stomach Cancer Thyroid Cancer Upper Gastro-Intestinal Cancer Uterine Cancer Our Stories Supporter Statements Patient Stories Treatment Team Videos about Radiation Therapy Talking To Your Doctor Leukaemia Leukaemia is a cancer of blood-forming tissues, including bone marrow

Read more on Radiation Oncology Targeting Cancer website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.