Key Points about Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

  • Acute myeloid leukemia most often occurs in adults age 65 and older.
  • Doctors use biopsy, blood tests, spinal taps and physical exams to diagnose AML.
  • Treatment for AML may include chemotherapy, targeted therapy and/or stem cell transplant.


Acute myeloid leukemia – or AML – is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Bone marrow is the spongy tissue located inside the bones. AML progresses quickly and affects a group of white blood cells known as myeloid cells.

This condition goes by several other names, including:

  • Acute granulocytic leukemia
  • Acute myeloblastic leukemia
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia
  • Acute nonlymphocytic leukemia

Acute myeloid leukemia causes

AML is caused when a bone marrow cell develops a mutation (change) in its DNA.

Acute myeloid leukemia risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk for developing AML:

  • Being a smoker
  • Being age 65 or older
  • Being exposed to certain chemicals, such as benzene
  • Being male
  • Having been exposed to high levels of radiation, such as during a nuclear reactor accident
  • Having certain blood disorders, such as:
    • Myelodysplasia
    • Myelofibrosis
    • Polycythemia Vera
    • Thrombocythemia
  • Having certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome
  • Having undergone chemotherapy or radiation therapy

Acute myeloid leukemia symptoms

Signs and symptoms of AML can include:

  • Bloody gums
  • Decreased energy
  • Easy bruising
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Frequent infections
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Pain in the bone
  • Pale skin
  • Shortness of breath

Acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam – your doctor will perform a complete physical exam, including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Blood tests – your doctor will send a sample of your blood to the laboratory for close analysis. The lab can determine if the blood has unusual levels of white blood cells, red blood cells or platelets, indicating AML.
  • Bone marrow biopsy – in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from the bone marrow. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for cancerous cells. 
  • Spinal tap – during this test, your doctor removes a sample of spinal fluid (the fluid that surrounds your spinal cord and brain). This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the spinal fluid for cancerous cells.

Acute myeloid leukemia treatment

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of the AML and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Bone marrow transplant – also known as a stem cell transplant, this treatment involves infusing your diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow. Doing so can help your body fight the cancer.
  • Chemotherapy – during this treatment, medication is used to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy can be taken via an oral (by mouth) pill or intravenously (through a vein).
  • Stem cell transplant – this treatment involves infusing healthy stem cells into your blood to help your body destroy cancerous cells and resume healthy white blood cell production.
  • Targeted therapy – in this treatment, specialized medications kill cancerous blood cells. Targeted therapy may help preserve more surrounding healthy tissue than other treatment options.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.

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