Risk factors and causes of acute myeloid leukaemia

The causes of AML are unknown and in most cases it’s unclear why leukaemia develops. Research into possible causes is going on all the time.

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 following are known risk factors of AML:

Exposure to radiation

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. Researchers think this may be due to the levels of benzene in cigarette smoke.

Exposure to benzene

In very rare cases, AML may occur after long-term exposure to benzene (and possibly other solvents) used in industry.

Cancer treatments

Rarely, some anti-cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy can cause leukaemia. When leukaemia develops because of previous anti-cancer treatment, this is called secondary leukaemia or treatment-related leukaemia.

Blood disorders

People with certain blood disorders, such as myelodysplasia or myeloproliferative disorders, have an increased risk of developing AML.

Genetic disorders

People with certain genetic disorders, including Down’s syndrome and Fanconi anaemia, have an increased risk of developing leukaemia.

Sometimes more than one family member has had AML or another blood cancer. If this is the case for your family, talk to your doctor and they may be able to organise further tests.

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