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Find out about the symptoms of hairy cell leukaemia and when to see your doctor.

Because hairy cell leukaemia is a type of chronic leukaemia, symptoms tend to be mild at first and build up slowly. Occasionally people with hairy cell leukaemia don’t have any symptoms and their doctors might find it during a routine blood test for something else.

Tired and breathless

You may feel tired and short of breath if you have a low level of red blood cells (anaemia). This could happen if your bone marrow becomes crowded by abnormal white blood cells and can’t produce enough red blood cells. Red blood cells help to carry oxygen around the body.

Frequent infections

You may pick up infections more easily as the numbers of abnormal white blood cells rise. This is because abnormal white blood cells are not as good at fighting infection as healthy ones.

If you have an uncontrolled infection, you might have very high temperatures and sweats.

Bleeding or bruising easily

The extra white blood cells take up more space in the bone marrow as their numbers rise. So there's not enough room for platelets to be made. These normally help the blood to clot, so you might have:

  • nosebleeds
  • unexplained bruising
  • unusually heavy periods

Swelling and pain in your tummy (abdomen)

With hairy cell leukaemia an enlarged spleen is quite common. The spleen is an organ on the left of your body, just under your ribs. It is part of the lymphatic system. If the spleen becomes bigger than normal, it can make your abdomen uncomfortable or painful. Your doctor might be able to feel your spleen. 

Diagram showing the position of the spleen

Sometimes leukaemia cells build up in the liver, which can also make your abdomen swell.

Weight loss

Hairy cell leukaemia itself uses up energy that your body would otherwise use or store. So you might lose weight, even if you're eating normally.

An enlarged spleen may also contribute to weight loss by squashing your stomach. This can make you feel full more quickly than usual, so you eat less than you normally would.

If you have any of these symptoms you must get them checked by your GP. But remember, they can all be caused by other conditions. Most people with these symptoms don’t have leukaemia.
Last reviewed: 
31 Mar 2015
  • Recommendations of the SFH (French Society of Haematology) for the diagnosis, treatment and follow-up of hairy cell leukaemia
    E Cornet and others for the French Society of Haematology
    Annals of Hematology, 2014. Volume 93, Issue 12

  • Cancer and its Management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

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