Acute Leukemia – What Is It?

What is Acute Leukemia?
Before getting to know about acute leukemia, one should know about the basics of blood cells in our body.
Our blood has three types of cells in it.

• The red cells are predominant and they help in carrying oxygen from the lungs to all the tissues of the body.
• The white cells fight against various bacteria and viruses entering our body and help to protect against infections.
• The platelets are the cells which constantly help in repairing any tears occurring in our blood vessels and so help to prevent any bleeding

The blood cells after circulating in the body are destroyed in our blood after some days. So they have to be replaced continuously. All these cells are constantly produced in the bone marrow. Bone marrow is a tiny space present inside most of our bones.

The blood cells have to be constantly produced in the marrow to keep the blood, function properly. If for some reasons, the bone marrow does not produce enough cells or produce bad quality cells, then various problems arise.

Leukemia is one condition in which the white blood cells in the bone marrow are produced in excess of what is needed. Not only they are produced in excess, but they cannot mature properly. These immature cells accumulate in the bone marrow and affect the production of other cells such as red cells and platelets.
This accumulation of immature or bad white cells in the bone marrow is called acute leukemia.

Why does leukemia occur?
Leukemia are produced due to abnormal production of white cells. Like a computer chip, each cell has a programme stored in the chromosome. This programme decides, how often a cell has to divide and how to mature and function. If this programme is damaged to due to some damage in the chromosome, leukemia occurs. Even though there are various causes, by which the chromosome can be damaged, in a particular individual it may be hard to say.

What are the symptoms of leukemia?
Since bad white cells are produced, they cannot function properly. Also they affect the production of other blood cells.
Defect in white cells make us prone for infections. So prolonged fevers can occur.
Reduced production of red cells cause anemia.
Reduced production of platelets cause spontaneous bleeding either from the gums or from other sites.
Since the bone marrow is rapidly expanded with these bad white cells, it can cause bone pains over the chest or in the back.

Does these symptoms always mean leukemia?
No, since various other causes can produce defect in blood cells, these symptoms never always indicate leukemia. That is why if these symptoms are there, a blood smear is examined and if necessary a bone marrow examination is done to diagnose leukemia.

How does infection occur?
Since the white cells are the policemen of our body, they fight against all the infectious organisms entering our body. Our body itself have lot of bacteria in the intestine and our nose may contain fungus. These normally do not cause infections, as even if these bacteria or fungus enter our blood, they are rapidly destroyed by the white cells. But when the white cells are very few or absent, these bacteria or fungus entering our blood can grow well, and can cause infections.

In addition bacteria can also enter from outside the body. So, patient has to follow the safety precautions, as supplied by the hospital, during the chemotherapy.

On our next article will give in depth detailing on the treatments and care. Stay tuned.

About the Author

The above article was written by Dr. Suthanthira Kannan R, MD, FRCPA, Consultant Hematologist and Transplant Physcician, in  Coimbatore Kidney Centre and Speciality Hospitals, Advanced Centre for Blood and Blood Cancers.

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