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The exact causes of AML are unknown and in most cases it’s unclear why leukaemia has developed. Research into possible causes is going on all the time. Like other cancers, AML isn’t infectious and can’t be passed on to other people.
There are a number of factors that may increase a person’s risk of developing AML. Having a particular risk factor doesn’t mean you will definitely get AML, and people without any known risk factors can still develop it. The known risk factors of AML are explained here.
People exposed to high levels of radiation, such as nuclear industry accidents, have a higher risk of developing leukaemia than people who have not been exposed. However, very few people in the UK will be exposed to radiation levels high enough to increase their risk.
Smoking increases the risk of developing AML. It’s thought this may be due to the concentrated levels of benzene in cigarette smoke.
In very rare cases, AML may occur after long-term exposure to benzene (and possibly other solvents) used in industry.
Rarely, some anti-cancer treatments such as chemotherapy| or radiotherapy| can cause leukaemia to develop some years later. The risk increases when certain types of chemotherapy drugs are combined with radiotherapy. When leukaemia develops because of previous anti-cancer treatment, this is called secondary leukaemia or treatment-related leukaemia.
People with certain blood disorders, such as myelodysplasia| or myeloproliferative disorders (such as myelofibrosis|, polycythaemia vera| or essential thrombocythaemia|) have an increased risk of developing AML.
People with certain genetic disorders, including Down’s syndrome and Fanconi’s anaemia, have an increased risk of developing leukaemia.
Content last reviewed: 1 February 2013
Next planned review: 2015
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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