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Common Virus vs. Early Leukemia Symptoms: What Is the Difference?

Posted on June 09, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Mark Levin, M.D.
Article written by
Sage Salvo

What is Leukemia? | Overlapping Symptoms | Symptom Differences | Common Cold | Treating Early Stage Leukemia | Support

The signs and symptoms of a common cold are often instantly recognizable. Waking up with a cough or fever is usually enough for a person to call in sick, take some over-the-counter medications, sip some chicken soup, and stay in bed for a day or two while they recover.

Viruses are usually to blame for seasonal coughs and sniffles, but long-lasting symptoms might be the result of a more serious problem. The early signs of leukemia are often mistaken for viral colds. That’s because common colds are, as their name suggests, common. We all get them. According to the Mayo Clinic, healthy adults can expect to feel under the weather two or three times per year. Leukemia, on the other hand, is less common and therefore not as universally understood. It is natural to think you have a cold rather than leukemia. This article compares and contrasts the two conditions and provides a few pointers on how to categorize your symptoms. Talk to your doctor immediately if you have any concerns about your symptoms or think that you may have leukemia.

What Is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a form of blood cancer that affects blood-forming tissues (the lymphatic system and bone marrow). Normally, the bone marrow produces healthy blood cells, which then grow and divide as needed. In a person with leukemia, the bone marrow produces an overload of dysfunctional cells that don’t work as intended.

The condition most often affects lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell), although leukemia can also involve blood-forming myeloid cells. The type of cell the cancer affects, as well as how quickly it progresses, determines the specific type of leukemia a person has.

There are five main subtypes of leukemia: acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), acute myeloid leukemia (AML), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML). These conditions can affect children and adults, although people in different age groups may experience different symptoms.

How Do Symptoms of Leukemia and Viruses Overlap?

Most of the symptoms we associate with viruses — sneezing, coughing, sore throat — relate to the respiratory system. That’s because the common cold occurs when a person develops a viral infection somewhere in their upper respiratory system, which includes the nose and throat. The most easily identifiable symptoms of a virus include:

  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Malaise (a general feeling of being unwell or tired)

Because these symptoms aren’t usually a cause for alarm, it can be easy to dismiss them as temporary viral effects. However, early on in disease progression, waking up with leukemia can feel a lot like waking up with a virus. Those with early leukemia might experience:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats
  • Coughing
  • Body aches

All of these overlap with and can be mistaken for symptoms of a cold or the flu.

The Difference Between Leukemia and Cold or Flu Symptoms

Despite the similarities in symptoms, viral infections and leukemia can be differentiated. The first indicator of cancer is the timeline. A viral infection will generally fade over one to two weeks. If your symptoms persist after that point, you should meet with your doctor to assess other underlying causes.

You may also show other symptoms that point toward leukemia. Other common signs of early stage leukemia include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Petechiae (small red spots that appear under the skin)
  • Abdominal aches
  • Bone pain
  • Nosebleeds
  • Frequent bleeding or bruising
  • Swelling in your lymph nodes (located in your neck, armpit, and groin area)

The appearance of certain conditions, such as anemia, leukopenia, and thrombocytopenia, can also make a leukemia diagnosis more likely. These conditions will be found in a blood test showing an abnormal white cell count.

Anemia

People who have anemia have a low red blood cell count. Because red blood cells carry oxygen through the body, people who are anemic often experience symptoms such as fatigue, body weakness, weight loss, and shortness of breath.

“The fatigue is annoying sometimes,” a MyLeukemiaTeam member shared. “Sometimes, you want to do more and the body says ‘not now.’”

Leukopenia

Leukopenia is a condition characterized by a low white blood cell count. Normally, white blood cells serve as a major part of the body’s immune system defense. Because people with leukopenia don’t have the usual volume of white blood cells, it can be more difficult for them to fight infections.

Thrombocytopenia

People who have thrombocytopenia have a low blood platelet count. In a healthy person, platelets help clot the blood. Those with low platelet levels often bruise and bleed easily.

Symptoms in Children

Leukemia symptoms can vary across different age groups. For a person with childhood leukemia, telltale symptoms might include:

  • Headaches
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Balance problems
  • Rashes
  • Gum issues

If a child’s leukemia has caused their thymus gland to expand and press on the superior vena cava (SVC — a major vein that transports blood from the arms and head into the heart), they can develop SVC syndrome. This rare condition can hinder proper blood flow and lead to swelling in the face, neck, arms, and upper chest. SVC syndrome can be fatal if left untreated — seek immediate help if your child exhibits any such swelling.

Common Cold and Leukemia Causes

The common cold is caused by a contagious virus (in most cases, a rhinovirus). When a person infected with this virus sneezes, coughs, or talks, they spread tiny virus-containing droplets into the air. These droplets can then be inhaled by another person, infecting them with the virus. In some cases, a person can also catch the common cold by hand-to-hand contact or by touching objects that have been used by a contagious person.

Unlike the common cold, leukemia is not contagious. It cannot be transmitted from one person or object to another. Currently, doctors aren’t entirely sure what the root cause of leukemia is. They do know that cancer begins when the DNA of a cell in the bone marrow mutates in a way that changes how the cell grows and functions and how it interacts with its environment. Over time, these cells suppress the development of normal cells and prompt the symptoms of leukemia.

Risk Factors for Leukemia

Although researchers are still trying to determine what causes the initial mutation in people with leukemia, they have identified a few risk factors that make developing leukemia more likely. For example, those who smoke or who work with industrial chemicals have an increased risk of developing leukemia because they come into regular contact with carcinogenic (cancer-causing) agents, like benzene and formaldehyde.

Undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy also increases the chances of leukemia. Those who have certain genetic disorders — such as Down syndrome, neurofibromatosis, Shwachman-Diamond syndrome, or Klinefelter's syndrome — are also more at risk.

That said, having one or more of these risk factors does not guarantee that you will develop leukemia. However, if you start experiencing early leukemia symptoms and you smoke, have had chemotherapy, or have one of the genetic diseases that increase the risk of leukemia, it’s crucial to share that information with your doctor so they can make a well-informed diagnosis.

As with any cancer, early identification is key when it comes to treating leukemia. If you have cold-like symptoms that have persisted for more than two weeks, or any other physical signs that might indicate leukemia, you should make an appointment with your doctor. If you’re diagnosed with leukemia, an oncologist will develop a treatment plan tailored to your specific type of leukemia and help you manage your condition.

Treating Early Stage Leukemia

There are several treatment options available to those with leukemia. Each person’s treatment plan depends on a variety of factors, including their age, leukemia type, disease progression, and general health.

Chemotherapy, Biological Therapies, and Radiation Therapy

The foremost treatment for leukemia is chemotherapy, which uses oral or injected drugs to destroy mutated cells. Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy beams to damage and prevent the growth of mutated cells, is also common. Targeted or biological therapy has recently made its way into the treatment of leukemia.

Stem Cell Transplants and CAR-T Cell Therapy

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be used in combination with stem cell transplants to destroy leukemia-producing marrow and facilitate the production of fresh, healthy bone marrow. CAR-T cell therapy is a new biological therapy that is approved for those with relapsed and refractory leukemia.

Targeted Drug Therapy

Targeted drug therapy uses selected drugs to block abnormalities and induce death in cancer cells. Not all people with leukemia respond to targeted drug therapy. If you have leukemia, your oncologist may run some tests to check whether or not the approach would be useful in your case.

Your oncologist is your partner in recovery. Ask your doctor for medical advice on which treatment option will be best for you.

Meet Your Team

Finding out that you or a family member has leukemia is stressful. Navigating the recovery process can feel challenging and isolating. But you don’t have to go it alone. MyLeukemiaTeam is the social media platform designed to connect, support, and encourage people who share your diagnosis.

Do you have an insight about identifying the early signs of leukemia that you want to share? Leave a comment below or start a conversation by posting on MyLeukemiaTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Sage Salvo is a content creator who specializes in developing savvy, SEO-aware content strategies and top notch ghostwritten articles for a wide variety of industry niches. Learn more about her here.

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