Edema (Swelling)

What is edema?

Edema or swelling is the puffiness of body parts caused by excess fluid trapped in the body’s tissues. Edema usually happens in the feet, ankles, and legs. It can affect the face and hands. Pregnant women and older adults get edema, but it can happen to anyone.

Certain types of cancers and cancer treatment also cause edema.

How bad is my edema?

Mild: 10% inter-limb discrepancy at point of greatest visible difference and swelling. Mild edema can be safely managed at home. Follow the tips given in the section below.

Moderate: 10 – 30% inter-limb discrepancy at point of greatest visible difference; swelling, stretched, and shiny skin; limiting instrumental activities of daily living. It can be managed at home. Sometimes it may require the attention of the medical team.

Severe: 30% inter-limb discrepancy; limiting self-care activities of daily living. Severe edema may be an emergency and require additional medical interventions.

How to manage mild edema?
  • Put a pillow under the legs while 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 are available 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.
  • 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.
How to manage moderate and severe edema?

Seek medical help if you have swelling, shiny skin, or skin that retains a dimple after being pressed (pitting). See your doctor immediately if you experience:

These can be signs of pulmonary edema, which requires prompt treatment.

If you’ve been sitting for a prolonged period, and you develop leg pain and swelling that won’t go away, call your doctor. Persistent leg pain and swelling can indicate a blood clot deep in your vein.

What causes edema?

Edema (dropsy) is the accumulation of extra fluid that builds up in the tissues of the body. Many things can cause fluid to build up.

  • Sitting or staying in one position for too long
  • Eating too much salty food
  • Having premenstrual signs and symptoms
  • Pregnancy
  • Kidney cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Ovarian cancer

Edema can be a side effect of some medications, including:

  • High blood pressure medications
  • Chemotherapy drugs
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Steroid drugs
  • Estrogens
  • Certain diabetes medications called thiazolidinediones

Some health problems (congestive heart failure, liver disease, and kidney disease), can cause edema. You cannot catch edema (swelling) from other people. It does not run in families.

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