What is edema?

Edema is swelling caused by extra fluid that gets trapped inside of your body's tissues. It has multiple causes, ranging from prolonged periods of sitting to congestive heart failure.
Edema is swelling caused by extra fluid that gets trapped inside of your body’s tissues. It has multiple causes, ranging from prolonged periods of sitting to congestive heart failure.

Edema is swelling caused by extra fluid that gets trapped inside of your body’s tissues. Formerly known as dropsy, this swelling is typically most noticeable in your hands, arms, legs, ankles, and feet, but it can occur in any part of your body. 

Edema has multiple causes, ranging from prolonged periods of sitting to congestive heart failure. To lessen the symptoms of edema, you can take medication to remove the excess fluid and lower the amount of salt in your blood. 

Several home remedies can help with the symptoms of edema. However, if edema is a sign of an underlying disease, you’ll need to seek separate treatment for the disease itself.

Signs of edema

The following are signs of edema: 

  • The tissue directly beneath your skin is swollen, particularly in your legs and arms
  • Your skin is puffy or shiny
  • Your abdomen (belly) appears bigger than normal
  • When you press down on your skin for a few seconds, it retains a dimple shape or pit 

Types of edema

Each type of edema is usually named after the body part where it occurs. Although edema can affect numerous parts of your body, it most commonly occurs in your legs or feet. The main types of edema are

  • Cerebral edema, excess fluid in your brain
  • Angioedema, swelling in the deeper layers of your skin that can occur on your face, hands, and feet
  • Hereditary angioedema, a rare genetic condition that causes your capillaries to release fluid into your tissues 
  • Papilledema, swelling of your optic nerve (the nerve that connects your eye to your brain) 
  • Macular edema, swelling of a certain part of your eye (the macula)
  • Dependent edema, edema in your legs and lower body caused by gravity and your body’s positioning
  • Scrotal lymphedema, the enlargement of your scrotum caused by a buildup of fluid around your testes
  • Lipedema, a disorder of your fatty tissue that causes swelling in your legs and hips 

SLIDESHOW

Heart Disease: Symptoms, Signs, and Causes See Slideshow

Causes of edema

There are six causes of edema, ranging from seemingly minor, like staying in a certain position too long, to serious and life-threatening. Some of the most common causes of edema are:

1. Long periods of standing or sitting

Sitting or standing for too long can cause extra fluid to build up in your feet, ankles, and lower legs. This occurs especially in hot weather conditions. 

2. Venous insufficiency

When small valves inside the veins of your legs become weakened, you can develop a condition called venous insufficiency. This makes it harder for your veins to pump blood back to your heart and can cause varicose veins and buildup of excess fluid. 

3. Chronic (long-term) lung diseases

If you have severe chronic lung diseases, such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, you’re at risk for experiencing edema. That’s because these conditions increase pressure in blood vessels running from your heart to your lungs, which backs up in your heart. The added pressure can cause swelling in your legs and feet. 

4. Congestive heart failure

Congestive heart failure occurs when your heart can no longer pump blood normally. This condition causes fluid buildup in your lungs as well as other parts of your body. Swelling in your legs or feet is one of the common signs of congestive heart failure. 

5. Pregnancy

During pregnancy, your uterus puts pressure on your vena cava, which is a major blood vessel that brings blood from your legs back to your heart. Edema can also be caused by a more serious condition called preeclampsia, which affects around 5% of pregnancies and occurs in the third trimester of pregnancy. If you have this condition, you may notice swelling in your hands, feet, or face. 

6. Low levels of protein

Malnutrition, kidney disease, and liver disease can all cause low levels of protein in your blood. Proteins help hold salt and water inside of your blood vessels and keep fluid from leaking into your tissues. When you don’t have enough of a blood protein called albumin, this fluid leaks out and causes edema in your feet, ankles, and lower legs. 

When to see the doctor for edema

You should reach out to your doctor if you experience any of the above symptoms or signs of edema. You should seek immediate medical care if you experience: 

Diagnosing edema

To understand the cause of your edema, your doctor will first ask you a series of questions about your symptoms and medical history and will then perform a physical exam. If further information is required to make a diagnosis, your doctor may perform any of the following tests: 

Treatments for edema

In most cases, mild edema goes away on its own. You can also speed up your recovery by trying home remedies. More severe edema may require medication that helps your body get rid of the excess fluid. 

Medication

If you have severe edema, your doctor may prescribe a type of medicine called a diuretic. Diuretics help your kidneys form urine and in turn help your body eliminate excess water. Furosemide (Lasix) is one of the most commonly prescribed diuretics. 

Home remedies 

Actions you can take at home to help lessen your symptoms of edema include:

  • Standing up and walking around at least once an hour
  • Elevating the swollen body part above the level of your heart 
  • Wearing compression stockings over the affected limb(s)
  • Keeping the affected area protected by ensuring it is clean, well-moisturized, and free from injury
  • Reducing the amount of salt in your diet, as salt can increase fluid retention 

QUESTION

In the U.S., 1 in every 4 deaths is caused by heart disease. See Answer

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Medically Reviewed on 1/5/2021
References
American Academy of Family Physicians: "Edema."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Edema."

Marie Curie: "Fluid build-up - oedema and lymphoedema."

National Cancer Institute: "Edema (Swelling) and Cancer Treatment."