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What causes edema? 15 possible conditions

What Is Edema?

Edema, also known as dropsy, is swelling caused by fluid retention. Edema usually occurs in the legs, ankles, or feet. But it can also occur in the hands, the face, or any other part of the body. 

What Causes Edema?

Edema is usually a symptom of another condition. In women, it is often a sign of pregnancy or a sign that the menstrual cycle is about to occur (Mayo Clinic, 2011).

Serious illnesses such as heart failure, kidney disease, and liver problems (such as cirrhosis) may also cause edema.

Medications, such as those prescribed for high blood pressure, diabetes, or pain, can cause edema. Sometimes, edema is a result of damaged or varicose veins in the legs. 

After a mastectomy, edema can be a result of removal of the lymph nodes. This form of edema is known as lymphedema.

A poor diet, especially a diet containing too much salt, can cause mild edema or worsen it when combined with other conditions. Lack of activity can cause edema. But spending too much time on your feet, especially in hot weather, can worsen it (Medline Plus, 2013).

When to Seek Help for Edema

If you experience edema while pregnant, call a doctor. It can be an indicator of complications.

Seek emergency assistance if you have trouble breathing. In pulmonary edema, the lungs fill with water. This is a serious medical condition. 


The two most common solutions for alleviating edema are reducing salt intake and keeping the legs up when sitting.

Treatment at home

  • Reduce salt and eat healthily. Too much sodium can cause or aggravate edema. It's important to eat foods rich in vitamins A, C, E, and B, as well as green vegetables. Moderate exercise can keep swelling from occurring. Avoid tobacco and alcohol.
  • Wear support stockings or apply pressure to the swollen area.
  • Try acupuncture or massage. 
  • Herbal remedies such as bilberry, dandelion, and grape seed extract may alleviate edema
  • A medical professional may recommend hot or cold therapy. 

Medical treatment

If a life-threatening illness is causing edema, see a doctor immediately.

The advice you receive from a medical professional will depend upon your condition:

  • Pregnancy: Fluid retention can be dangerous for pregnant women. Diuretics may be prescribed. 
  • Heart disease: For people with heart failure, diuretics used in conjunction with other medications can improve symptoms.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver: Reducing salt and taking a diuretic improves symptoms.
  • Lymphedema: Diuretics can he helpful during the early onset of lymphedema. Now that breast cancer surgery is much less invasive, this form of edema is becoming less common (O’Brien, et al., 2005). 
  • Medication-induced edema: Diuretics do not work in these instances.

Preventing Edema

To prevent edema, stay as physically active as you are able, avoid excess sodium in your diet, and follow your doctor’s orders regarding any conditions that cause edema.

Article Sources:

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.



Bleeding or spotting, increased need to urinate, tender breasts, fatigue, nausea, and missed period are signs of pregnancy.

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Thrombophlebitis is an inflammation of a vein, usually in the leg, that can cause swelling or redness. If left untreated, it can lead to a pulmonary embolism.

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Varicose Veins

Varicose veins occur when your veins become chronically over-filled with blood. They're often painful and unsightly, with a bluish-purple or red coloration. The condition is very common, especially in women.

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HELLP Syndrome

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

HELLP syndrome is an extremely dangerous condition in pregnant women. It includes: Hemolysis, ELevated liver enzymes, Low Platelet count. HELLP symptoms are similar to flu-like symptoms, but other symptoms are possible.

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Obstructive Uropathy

Obstructive uropathy is a condition in which your urine flow is blocked, and backs up into the kidneys. IIt may be caused by a blockage in one of the ureters.

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Heart Failure

Right-side heart failure occurs when the right ventricle can't properly pump blood to your lungs to collect oxygen. Excessive fatigue, shortness of breath and abdominal bloating are signs.

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Ischemic Cardiomyopathy

Ischemic cardiomyopathy is a condition that occurs when the heart muscle is weakened due to insufficient blood flow to the heart's muscle. This inhibits the heart's ability to pump blood and can lead to heart failure.

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Hypertensive Heart Disease

Hypertensive heart disease refers to heart conditions caused by high blood pressure. Possible signs of acute hypertension include sweating and chills.

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Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a form of heart disease caused by alcohol abuse. Long-term alcohol abuse weakens and thins the heart muscle. The damaged muscle cannot pump blood as it should, which deprives the bod...

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Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle. It is a rare condition that can be caused by any number of autoimmune diseases, viral, bacterial, or fungal infections, or parasites. When you have an infection or a...

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Kidney Health and Kidney Disease Basics

Learn how to keep your kidneys healthy and prevent kidney disease. Find information on kidney disease, including causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

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Glomerulonephritis is a serious illness that can be life-threatening and requires immediate treatment. The condition is sometimes called nephritis.

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Acute Kidney Tubular Necrosis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Inside your kidneys are small tube-shaped structures that remove salt, excess fluids, and waste products from the blood. When these tubules are damaged or destroyed, you develop acute tubular necrosis (ATN). The damag...

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Cirrhosis is the severe scarring and poor function of the liver caused by long-term exposure to toxins such as alcohol or viral infections.

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Whipple's Disease

Whipple's disease is a rare but dangerous bacterial disease that prevents the body from properly absorbing nutrients. The disease affects many parts of the body and is associated with a variety of symptoms.

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.