Symptoms of hairy cell leukaemia

Hairy cell leukaemia is a rare type of chronic leukaemia. Symptoms can be mild at first, building up slowly. Symptoms might include:

  • frequent infections
  • feeling tired or breathless
  • bruising or bleeding easily
  • a swollen and painful tummy

Some people don't have any symptoms. They are diagnosed because they have a routine blood test for something else.

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.

Frequent infections

You might 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.

You might have very high temperatures if you have an uncontrolled infection.

Tiredness and breathlessness

You might 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. So your bone marrow can’t produce enough red blood cells. Red blood cells help to carry oxygen around the body.

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 the bone marrow to make platelets. Platelets normally help the blood to clot, so you might have:

  • nosebleeds
  • unexplained bruising
  • unusually heavy periods

Swelling and pain in your tummy (abdomen)

The spleen is an organ on the left of your body, just under your ribs. It is part of the lymphatic system. Hairy cell leukaemia can cause your spleen to be bigger than normal. This is called an enlarged spleen.

Your doctor might be able to feel your enlarged spleen.  And your abdomen might become uncomfortable or painful. 

Diagram showing the position of the spleen

Leukaemia cells building up in the liver can also cause tummy (abdominal) swelling.

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.

Related links