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Diseases & Conditions

Edema

What is edema?

Edema is swelling that is caused by fluid trapped in your body’s tissues. Edema happens most often in the feet, ankles, and legs, but can affect other parts of the body, such as the face, hands, and abdomen. It can also involve the entire body.

What causes edema?

Edema has many possible causes:

  • Edema can occur as a result of gravity, especially from sitting or standing in one place for too long. Water naturally gets pulled down into your legs and feet.
  • It can happen from a weakening in the valves of the veins in the legs (a condition called venous insufficiency). This problem makes it hard for the veins to push blood back up to the heart, and leads to varicose veins and a buildup of fluid in the legs.
  • Certain diseases — such as congestive heart failure and lung, liver, kidney, and thyroid diseases — can cause edema or make it worse.
  • Some drugs, such as medications that you are taking for your blood pressure or to control pain, may cause or worsen edema.
  • An allergic reaction, severe inflammation, burns, trauma, clot(s), or poor nutrition can also cause edema.
  • Too much salt from your diet can make edema worse.
  • Being pregnant can cause edema in the legs as the uterus puts pressure on the blood vessels in the lower trunk of the body.

What are the symptoms of edema?

Signs that you might have edema include:

  • The affected area is swollen.
  • The skin over the swollen area might look stretched and shiny.
  • Pushing in gently on the swollen area with your finger for at least 5 seconds and then removing your finger will leave a dimple in the skin.
  • You may have trouble walking if your legs are swollen.
  • You may be coughing or have trouble breathing if you have edema in the lungs.

Your doctor will ask you questions, conduct a full exam, and might order tests to determine why you have edema.

How is edema treated?

Edema can be temporary or permanent, depending on its cause. Edema is treated according to the condition that is causing it.

  • For example, if edema is caused by lung disease, such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, quitting smoking would be advised if the patient smokes.
  • For patients with chronic heart failure, treating coronary artery disease; monitoring weight, fluid, and salt intake; and cutting down on excess alcohol would be advised.
  • If the cause is related to a medication, stopping the medication will cause the swelling to resolve.

In addition to treating the underlying diseases, there are a few other steps you can take to keep fluid from building up in your body:

  • Put a pillow under your legs when you are lying down or sitting for prolonged periods. (Keep your legs elevated above the level of your heart.)
  • Do not sit or stand for long periods of time without moving.
  • Wear support stockings, which put pressure on your legs and keep fluids from collecting in your legs and ankles. These stockings can be purchased at most drugstores.
  • Ask your doctor about limiting your salt intake.
  • Follow your doctor’s directions for taking prescription medications. Your doctor might want you to take a diuretic (commonly called a "water pill"), which helps your body get rid of excess fluid.

Other important tips:

  • Protect any swollen areas from additional pressure, injury, and extreme temperatures. Injury to the skin over swollen areas takes longer to heal and is more likely to become infected.
  • Call your doctor immediately if you experience any pain, redness, or heat in a swollen area; have an open sore; or experience shortness of breath or swelling of only one limb.
References

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 4/26/2012...#12564

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