Types of edema

Edema is the technical term for swelling, and it happens when fluid collects under the skin. Drinking water may help if you have mild edema.
Edema is the technical term for swelling, and it happens when fluid collects under the skin. Drinking water may help if you have mild edema.

Edema is the technical term for swelling, and it happens when fluid collects under the skin. It’s sometimes referred to as water retention. Most people will experience edema at one time or another in their lives.

If you have mild edema, you may be able to manage it with lifestyle changes like drinking more water, changing your diet, and staying active. Other causes of edema, though, require medical treatment. 

Acute swelling is common after an injury. It happens due to the physical trauma and the healing process.  You may be able to reduce swelling with first-aid measures like icing or compression. Acute swelling typically goes away as the injury gets better. Your doctor can help if the injury is severe.

Peripheral edema is swelling in the arms and legs. Many people experience episodes of edema due to hormonal fluctuations, eating too much sodium, or long periods of physical inactivity. Edema isn’t a health problem on its own, but it can be a symptom of more serious issues such as heart disease.

Get immediate medical attention if you have sudden, unexplained swelling in only one leg or swelling accompanied by fever, shortness of breath, or chest pain. These can be signs of a blood clot.

What are the symptoms of edema?

If you have swelling because of an injury, the signs will be visible. The swelling will likely be confined to the injury site, though sometimes, swelling spreads. Gravity can pull fluid downward, so injuries can lead to swelling further down the limb.

Peripheral edema usually has a more generalized appearance. Your whole arm or leg may be puffy from excess fluid. Some of the signs of edema include: 

  • A sensation of fullness or heaviness in affected limbs
  • Visible swelling in the affected limbs
  • Difficulty moving affected joints
  • Pain or soreness in the affected area
  • When you press the swelling, it leaves a dent.
  • The skin in the affected area feels tight or warm.

What are the main causes of edema?

Peripheral edema can happen for different reasons. Some common causes of temporary swelling include: 

  • Pregnancy
  • Hormone changes due to menstruation
  • Consuming high quantities of sodium 
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Side effects of certain medications
  • Long periods of inactivity, such as airplane flights or standing in one place for a work shift

Extreme temperatures, particularly heat, can make edema worse. Older adults may be more prone to swelling in their extremities.

Edema can also be a sign of illness. If you have unexplained, persistent swelling in your arms and legs, you should talk to your doctor. You may need tests for conditions, including:

Congestive heart failure

If your heart is too weak to pump blood properly, your circulation will be affected. Blood will pool in front of your heart, and fluid can seep out of your veins into the surrounding tissue. You can develop swelling in your limbs or abdomen.

Kidney disease

Your kidneys are critical for removing sodium from your body. If kidneys aren’t working well, the high sodium levels will lead to high blood pressure. Excess fluid will leak from the overfilled blood vessels and cause edema.

Liver conditions

Liver disease leads to congestion of the liver and increases blood pressure in the area surrounding the large organ. This can lead to swelling in the abdomen.

Lung disease

Lung conditions such as emphysema cause increased pressure around the heart and lungs. Blood vessels throughout the body can leak fluid, leading to edema, especially in the legs.

Lymphatic system issues

Lymphedema is swelling caused by damage to the lymphatic system. It can be a congenital issue or develop as a side effect of cancer treatment.

Venous insufficiency

If the veins in your feet and ankles are too weak to carry blood back to the heart, you can develop pooling in those veins. The excess fluid will seep into the tissue and result in swollen ankles and feet.

What is the treatment for edema?

The treatment for edema depends on the cause. If you have a serious health issue such as heart disease or liver disease, your doctor will tell you what treatment you need. Addressing your underlying condition can improve edema symptoms. If swelling is causing discomfort, the doctor may also offer you a diuretic, a medicine to quickly remove excess fluid from your body.

If you have mild edema, you might be able to improve symptoms with lifestyle changes such as.

  • Being active to improve overall blood circulation
  • Wear compression stockings to support better circulation in your feet and legs
  • Cut back on the amount of sodium in your diet
  • Elevate swollen limbs to encourage fluid to drain toward the heart

If you have frequent swelling in your extremities, you might find that the pressure under your skin leads to dry or cracked skin. Moisturizer can prevent skin damage and discomfort. You can keep the area clean by washing with a gentle soap. This will prevent bacteria from getting into cracks or scrapes and causing irritation or infections.

If you have questions about edema, call your doctor. They can help you determine the cause of swelling and tell you how to treat it. 

QUESTION

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

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Medically Reviewed on 1/28/2022
References
SOURCES:

Harvard Health Publishing: "Easing summer swelling."

InformedHealth.org: "Causes and signs of edema."

National Cancer Institute: "Lymphedema (PDQ®)–Patient Version."

Nationwide Children's: "Swelling: The Body's Reaction to Injury."