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Acute myeloid leukaemia: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About acute myeloid leukaemia

Acute myeloid leukaemia is one of two kinds of acute leukaemia. It is characterised by increased production of myeloid cells, precursors of white blood cells which would have otherwise matured to form white blood cells in normal circumstances.

Acute myeloid leukaemia: Incidence, age and sex

Acute Myeloid Leukaemia can occur at any age but seems to be more prevalent in adults. It is more common in men who are over 40 years of age.

Signs and symptoms of acute myeloid leukaemia: Diagnosis

The distinctive signs and symptoms are caused by the reduced number of normal blood cells and increased number of abnormal cells. A person with acute myeloid leukaemia may have decreased exercise tolerance, feel excessively tired and may complain of loss of appetite. These symptoms can occur due to reduced count of red blood cells which are responsible for the synthesis of haemoglobin. Reduced count of platelets may cause increased likelihood of bleeding from small wounds and from the nose and gums. Occasionally the patient may complain of skin rashes, blood in urine or stools. Because of the reduction in white blood cells the body is unable to fight against infectious agents like bacteria and virus which increases the chances of infection. Fever, sweating at night, bone pain, joint pain and headache are some other clinical features. There may be an increase in the size of the liver and spleen which is usually caused by the collection of abnormal blood cells.

Causes and prevention of acute myeloid leukaemia

There are three kinds of blood cells namely red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets which are produced in the bone marrow which is a part of bone. Normally these cells are released from the bone marrow into the blood stream where they carry out their functions. In acute myeloid leukaemia, enormous number of ‘myeloid’ cells are produced in rapid progression and released into the blood stream. These myeloid cells are actually immature white blood cells which fail to mature and function properly. Not only this, large number of these abnormal, cancerous cells replace the normal red blood cells and platelets, leading to typical clinical features.

Several research studies have concluded that there seem to be some factors which might trigger the cancerous production of such blood cells. Such factors include exposure to radiation, toxic materials like benzene and genetic factors. A recent organ transplant can also play a role in causing this form of leukaemia. These factors are mere assumptions based on research studies and at present, no definite cause can be attributed to this form of leukaemia.

Acute myeloid leukaemia: Complications

The complications of acute myeloid leukaemia can be life-threatening as bleeding or severe infection may result in prolonged hospitalisation or in rare instances, death. Moreover the abnormal blood cells may spread to the brain, signifying a poor prognosis.

Acute myeloid leukaemia: Treatment

The diagnosis can be confirmed by some blood tests and lumbar puncture. Lumbar puncture is used to aspirate bone marrow and see whether the cancer has spread to the spinal cord and brain. The treatment of acute myeloid leukaemia depends on the age and health status of the patient.

The treatment modalities include chemotherapy which kills the abnormal myeloid cells. Radiotherapy is indicated when acute myeloid leukaemia has spread to the brain and spinal cord. Regular blood transfusions may be essential to prevent anaemia and bleeding. Antibiotics can be prescribed for infections. The best available treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia is replacing the affected bone marrow with a healthy one. Since it is a surgical procedure, it carries some risk. Stem cell transplant, a latest advancement, may also be considered.

Acute myeloid leukaemia has a poor prognosis. The survival rate is low especially of a person in an older age group.