According to our latest survey, 20% leukaemia patients will experience frequent or repeated infections as a symptom prior to their diagnosis. In leukaemia, recurrent infections can occur because your body isn’t producing enough white blood cells to keep your immune system working properly. This means that the you are unable to rapidly destroy any harmful viruses, bacteria or fungi that have made their way into the body.
“I was getting viral infections a lot more frequently than I did before”.
This is a big problem when attempting to diagnose leukaemia at an earlier stage, as leukaemia patients and even GPs will often mistake leukaemia symptoms to be those of the flu or other infections. Technically speaking, they are not always wrong, as the symptoms can be the result of the infection itself, however, there are certain characteristics such as the duration of illness, your tendency to pick up infections and the concurrence with other symptoms of leukaemia that can to distinguish the difference between everyday infections and leukaemia. Read on to gain a better understanding of how certain signs of infection may help you to spot leukaemia sooner.
Common signs of infection and when to visit your GP:
Infections can develop anywhere in the body, such as the skin, the mouth, the lungs, the urinary tract or the genitals and they can manifest in a number of different ways. Nearly always they are harmless and will clear within a few weeks. However, there are some instances where it is worth contacting your GP to run further checks. It is important to note that the following symptoms are likely to be caused by a number of conditions other than leukaemia. Nevertheless, it is still important to consult with a medical professional for an accurate diagnosis.
Fever is the body’s natural response to help fight infections like coughs and colds. Generally, fevers are caused by viral infections that do not need to be treated and get better with rest alone. A child or baby with high temperature can usually be looked after at home and their temperature should go down over 3 or 4 days. Don’t hesitate to see a doctor if you or your child’s fever is particularly high or is long lasting.
For adults, contact your GP if;
- The temperature is 39.5 C or greater
- The fever lasts more than seven days
- Keeps coming back after disappearing
- Fever symptoms get worse
- Make sure to request a blood test if you are experiencing any other symptoms such as bruising, bone pain or shortness of breath
Take your child to the GP if they;
- Are less than 3 months old and has a temperature of 38C or higher
- Are between 3 – 6 months old and has a temperature of 39C or over
- Have any other signs of illness such as a rash
- Have any sort of raised temperature that has lasted for over 5 days
- Are showing a big drop in appetite and doesn’t want to eat
- Doesn’t show any improvement in temperature after receiving paracetamol or ibuprofen
“Frankie had just turned one when his symptoms first started. On an almost weekly basis, he was having very high temperatures, cold, coughs and when he would just get over one bug another one would start days after.”
“The symptoms were there but they don’t present themselves as unusual in children. Some we missed because they were regular coughs and colds.”
Sweating or chills
It is not unusual to sweat during the night if your bedding is too hot. Night sweats are defined as instances where you sweat even though you are sleeping in a cool environment, to an extent where your bed sheets or pyjamas become soaking wet. Night sweats are thought to present as a symptom in over 31% of leukaemia patients.
It is important to visit your GP if;
- You regularly have night sweats that wake you up at night
- You also have a fever, a cough or diarrhoea
- You are experiencing unexplained weight loss alongside night sweats
“In hindsight, the night sweats were a big give away. It wasn’t just a bit of a hot night, it was sheets drenched. It’s an unnatural type of sweat at night.”
“My night sweats were transient, I’d end up experiencing a week of night sweats, and then nothing.”
Sore throat and/or cough
Sore throats and coughs are extremely common and are nearly always harmless. Normally, a sore throat will resolve itself within a week. Most coughs are caused by a cold or flu.
Consider visiting your GP if;
- You have a sore throat for over a week
- You regularly get sore throats
- You have a cough or chest infection that lasts for longer than 3 weeks
- You have a cough or chest infection that keeps coming back
- You also appear to be losing weight for no reason
“The sore throats started at the beginning of 2006 and I visited the doctors on several occasions. I went away with antibiotics but days after finishing the course the infection would return.”
“My health started to go downhill. I thought I had caught a bad cold, but this progressed quickly into a terrible, persistent cough.”
Redness, swelling or pain around a wound
If you have leukaemia, you may start to notice that small cuts to your skin become infected more frequently, or they take longer than usual to heal.
“It all started with a small scratch on the top of my foot from swimming in an open water lake. The scratch quickly turned into cellulitis, as un-beknown to me my immune system was compromised.”
“I had been suffering from an infection, which had caused a rash to my stomach, back in 2002. I had gone to the doctors about it and kept going back and having blood tests, which showed my white cell count was not going down as it should.”
You should go to GP if any cut becomes infected. However, ask for a blood test if you are also experiencing any other symptoms such as fever, fatigue, bruising, weight loss or bone pain. Let your doctor know if you have been getting infected cuts or grazes more often than you are used to.
Lifestyle and infections – Things to consider
It can be very difficult to tell if you are picking up infections at an abnormally high rate that implies you have a weakened immune system. Many healthy individuals with perfectly functioning immune systems can develop multiple viral chest infections each year. For example, if you work in a nursery, are a teacher or parent, who is exposed to children that transmit viral infections, you are inevitably going to contract a higher number of infections than the general population, especially during the months in autumn or winter.
Children are naturally prone to infections, as this is just a part of growing up and establishing a healthy immune system. It not uncommon for a young child to develop up to 6-8 respiratory infections per year. Finally, individuals under high levels of stress, sleeping problems or with existing medical conditions such as diabetes will likely have a predisposition to infection.
This is not to dishearten these groups of people from seeing a GP. It all comes down to past experience. Regardless of your profession or lifestyle, if you feel like you are having more infections than you are used to, visit your GP to rule out any underlying problem.
“I’m a teacher and I had a pretty grotty academic year (2016-17), picking up every cough or cold that was going around and not seeming to shake it very easily.”
For more information on the signs and symptoms of leukaemia click here.