What is acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)?

This section is for teenagers and young adults. It is about a type of cancer called acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).

Leukaemia is a cancer that affects the white blood cells in your body. In leukaemia, these white blood cells grow out of control. Most people with AML make too many immature white blood cells. These are called myeloblasts, or sometimes they are called blasts. As the blasts are not mature, they cannot do the jobs that healthy blood cells do. These immature cells fill the bone marrow. This means there is no space to make the healthy blood cells your body needs.

The cause of many AML symptoms is having too few healthy blood cells in the body. Symptoms may appear quickly over a few weeks. They include feeling generally unwell, looking paler and bruising or bleeding more than usual.

We do not know what causes AML. You cannot catch it from someone and you cannot pass it on.

Some young people with genetic conditions or with non-cancerous conditions of the bone marrow have a higher risk of AML.

If you think you have any of the symptoms of AML, you should see your GP. Other things may be causing the symptoms, but it is important to get checked if you are worried.

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)

This section is for teenagers and young adults. It is about a type of cancer called acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). The other main type of leukaemia that can affect teenagers and young adults is acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. If you have a different type of leukaemia and want to know more, please contact us.

Our section on leukaemia in general has information about AML for people of all ages. It also has information about other types of leukaemia that are more common in older people.

Knowing a bit about how the body makes blood cells can help you understand leukaemia and its treatment. It might help to watch this short animation on how your blood works.

Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells. Normally, white blood cells divide and grow in a controlled way. In leukaemia, this process goes out of control. Most people with AML make too many immature white blood cells, called myeloblasts (sometimes called blasts). In some less common types of AML, too many immature platelets or red blood cells are also made. As the blasts do not mature, they cannot do the jobs that healthy blood cells do.

The immature blood cells (blasts) fill up the bone marrow This means there isn’t enough space to make all the healthy white cells, red cells and platelets your body needs. The body needs these cells to:

  • help us fight infection (white cells)
  • carry oxygen from the lungs around our body (red blood cells)
  • help blood to clot to stop us bleeding and bruising (platelets).


Symptoms

The cause of many AML symptoms is having fewer healthy blood cells than normal in the body.

Symptoms can include:

  • Looking paler than usual, feeling tired or becoming breathless easily. This is due to having too few red blood cells (anaemia).
  • Bruising or bleeding more easily, without any obvious cause. You may have bleeding gums, nosebleeds or heavy bleeding during your period. This is caused by a lack of platelets.
  • Having lots of infections. This is because of a lack of healthy white blood cells to fight infection.
  • Having painful joints and bones
  • Having swollen glands (lymph nodes) in your neck, under your arm or in your groin.
  • Feeling generally unwell and run down.
  • Having a fever or sweats. You may have a high temperature without any obvious cause, such as an infection.

Some people find out they have leukaemia through a routine blood test, before they have any symptoms.

Symptoms may appear quickly over a few weeks. If you have any of these symptoms you should ask your doctor to check them. But remember that other illnesses could be causing them. The cause could be less serious than leukaemia.


Causes

We do not know what causes AML, but research is going on to try to find out. Like other cancers, AML is not infectious. You cannot catch it from someone and you cannot pass it on.

Some young people with genetic conditions have a higher risk of AML. A genetic condition is something you are born with, such as Down’s syndrome. Children of parents who smoke in the home also have a higher risk of AML. Having chemotherapy or radiotherapy as a child can also increase your risk of developing ALL when you are older.

Some conditions of the bone marrow that are not cancer can also increase your risk of AML. These include aplastic anaemia or myelodysplastic syndromes.

We have more information about genetic conditions and cancer for people of all ages.


If you are worried about AML

If you think you have any of the symptoms of AML, you should go to your GP. They will talk to you about your symptoms, examine you and arrange tests or refer you to a specialist. Remember that other things may be causing the symptoms. But it is important to get checked if you are worried.

Watch: Megan talks about the impact of cancer

Watch: Megan talks about the impact of cancer

Back to AML

Having tests for AML

Talk to your GP if you are worried about symptoms. They can arrange any tests you might need.