Symptoms - Frequent Infections

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2018

Some people with blood cancer experience having frequent infections as a symptom of their cancer. Infections occur when the immune system is unable to quickly destroy harmful invaders, like viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Infections can start anywhere on the body, including the skin, the mouth, the lungs, the urinary tract, or the genitals. Common signs of infection include:

  • A fever of 100.5 degrees F or higher
  • Sweating or chills
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Frequent urination or pain while urinating
  • Redness, swelling, or pain around a wound
  • Unusual vaginal discharge or odor1

What causes recurring infections?

Blood cancer cells can multiply and crowd out healthy blood cells, including white blood cells (WBCs). WBCs are the immune system's first line of defense against foreign invaders, and when there aren't enough healthy WBCs, a person is at increased risk for infections.1,2

Some treatments for blood cancer, including chemotherapy, can also weaken the body's immune system and cause an increased risk for infections.1,2

Other symptoms of blood cancer

Blood cancers can cause several general symptoms. Because these general symptoms may be caused by blood cancer or many other conditions, it's important to have these or other symptoms evaluated by a healthcare professional to get a proper diagnosis. General symptoms that blood cancer may cause include:

  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Feeling of fullness in the abdomen
  • Aches in the arms, legs, or joints2,3

In addition to WBCs, the cancerous cells in blood cancer can crowd out additional healthy blood cells, including red blood cells and platelets. When the healthy blood cells are negatively impacted, blood cancers can cause additional symptoms, such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
  • Headache
  • Fevers, especially without an obvious cause
  • Frequent bruises, especially without a clear reason
  • Easily bleeding, such as from cuts, from the gums, or frequent nose bleeds
  • Small, pinhead-sized red spots on the skin (called "petechiae")2,3

It's important to remember that not everyone with blood cancer experiences all these symptoms. There are many different types of blood cancer, each with its own unique list of symptoms, and each individual has a unique experience and combination of symptoms.

Diagnosing blood cancer

To diagnose blood cancer, doctors may use several tests, including a physical exam, medical history, blood tests (like a complete blood count, blood chemistry, blood smear, and blood clotting tests), bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, lymph node biopsy, lumbar puncture, and imaging tests (like a chest x-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound). Some of these tests are also used to rule out other conditions.2

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