What causes swelling? 24 possible conditions

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What Is Swelling?

Swelling occurs whenever the organs, skin, or other parts of your body enlarge. It is typically the result of inflammation or a buildup of fluid. Swelling can occur internally (within the body) or it can affect your outer skin and muscles. A range of conditions can cause swelling.

Insect bites, illnesses, or injuries often result in external swelling. Internal swelling is often a side effect of medication or the result of a serious injury. You should seek immediate medical attention if you experience rapid unexplainable swelling, especially if you also have unexplained weight gain and pain.

What Causes Swelling to Occur?

External swelling is often caused by insect bites, injuries or natural causes, such as pregnancy. Inflammation in your bones, tissues, or muscles can result in external swelling. Cysts and tumors may also cause visible swelling. Although fluid retention is an internal condition, it may also cause external swelling.

The most common causes for external swelling are:

  • insect bites
  • rash
  • hives
  • injury
  • fluid retention
  • pregnancy
  • menstruation
  • hormonal changes
  • infection

External swelling can be localized or widespread.

Localized swelling refers to situations where just one specific area is swollen. For instance, a person with an eye infection may experience swelling around the eyes. A person who has been stung by an insect may experience swelling in the area of the sting.

Widespread swelling occurs over a large area of the body. According to the National Institutes of Health, this is usually a sign of serious illness. (NIH) It is often due to fluid retention or an allergic reaction. Other common causes of widespread swelling are:

  • kidney failure
  • other organ failure
  • anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction)
  • venomous insect bite

People with diabetes or certain forms of cancer can experience widespread swelling, or swelling in their extremities, such as their fingers and toes. This form of swelling may appear periodically.

Inside of your body, swelling is often the result of organ inflammation, fluid retention, or flatulence. This can occur in people with chronic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and cancer.

Symptoms of Swelling

Sometimes, instances of slight swelling may go unnoticed, especially since the condition does not always cause other symptoms.

For external swelling, the enlargement of skin or muscles is normally visible. However, other signs of swelling include the buildup of fluid in the affected area; an imaging scan that shows an enlarged organ, muscle, or bone; or stomach pain. These signs can help diagnose internal swelling, which is harder to identify.

If your swelling was caused by an injury, sting, or disease, you may experience a wide range of symptoms as well. These may include:

  • itching
  • vomiting
  • flatulence
  • pain in the affected area

If the swelling is not visible or if it is internal, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • flu-like symptoms
  • pain

How is Swelling Diagnosed?

Your doctor may do a variety of tests to diagnose your swelling and its cause. First, he or she will go over the symptoms you are experiencing and perform a physical examination to check for tenderness in the affected area.

An imaging test, such as an ultrasound or a more specialized test such as a CT scan (computed tomography scan) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, can offer more information about the cause of the swelling. These imaging tests might reveal blockages in your arteries and veins, inflamed muscle or tissue, or bone fractures. They can also show if you are retaining fluid or have an impacted colon.

Your blood and urine will be tested to determine if a disease is causing the swelling.

If a severe allergic reaction is causing your swelling, you will be given an injection of adrenaline before any tests are administered. This medication will stop the reaction from getting any worse.

How is Swelling Treated?

Your treatment will depend on the cause of the swelling.

If a tumor or abscess is causing the swelling, you may need surgery to remove it. If the growth cannot be surgically removed because of its size or location, your doctor may order an aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation, to shrink it.

Your doctor might prescribe medication to relieve inflammation or swelling. Over-the-counter antihistamines can relieve itching and swelling caused by rashes or hives. Topical steroid medication may also be useful in easing skin inflammation. Consult with your doctor if these medications are not helping, since he or she may be able prescribe a stronger antihistamine.

If a chronic illness is causing your body to swell, you may be able to prevent further swelling by properly managing your illness or by taking medications to treat it. Medication is also used when you have internal swelling as a result of inflammation.

Your doctor may also suggest lifestyle changes to prevent internal swelling. Some at-home measures you can take include avoiding salt, wearing support pantyhose, or keeping your arms and legs above chest level when lying down.

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

1

Sprains & Strains

Sprains and strains are injuries to the body, often resulting from physical activity. These injuries are common and can range from minor to severe, depending on the incident. Most don't require medical attention.

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2

Allergies Overview

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

An allergy is the immune system's response to a foreign substance (allergen) that is not typically harmful to a person's body. This attack response may involve inflammation, sneezing, and a host of other symptoms.

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3

Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

Congestive heart failure is a chronic condition that affects the four chambers of the heart. Early symptoms include fatigue and weight gain. Irregular heart beat and wheezing indicate a worsening.

Read more »

4

Burns

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

A burn is damage to the skin or body normally caused by exposure to heat or hot substances. Some symptoms are pain, red skin, and blisters.

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5

Chemical Burns

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

Chemical burns occur when the skin or eyes come into contact with irritants, such as acids or bases. Symptoms vary, but skin reactions, pain or numbness are common.

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6

Chronic Kidney Disease

Chronic kidney disease is a progressive, irreversible destruction of the kidneys. The most common causes are high blood pressure and diabetes. Symptoms don't show until about 90 percent of the kidney has been destroyed.

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7

Bruises

A bruise or "contusion" appears on the skin when it has suffered trauma such as a cut or a blow to the area. The injury causes tiny blood vessels called capillaries to burst, and blood is trapped below the skin'...

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8

Hives

Hives, or urticaria, are itchy, raised welts on the skin, often red and painful to touch. They are often caused by an adverse reaction to medication or allergens.

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9

Hypothyroidism

The thyroid gland produces a hormone that controls how your cells use energy (metabolize). Hypothyroidism occurs when the body doesn't produce enough. Untreated, it can cause comlications like obesity and heart disease.

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10

Diabetic Nephropathy

Diabetic nephropathy is a type of progressive kidney disease that occurs in people who have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. The University of Washington estimates that 20 to 40 percent of people with diabetes will ge...

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11

Glomerulonephritis

The glomeruli are structures in your kidneys made up of tiny blood vessels. These knots of vessels help filter blood and remove excess fluid. If your glomeruli are damaged, your kidneys will stop longer work properly...

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12

Fracture

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

A fracture is a broken bone. It can range from a thin crack to a complete break. A bone can fracture crosswise, lengthwise, in several places, or many pieces.

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13

First Degree Burn

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

A first-degree burn (also called a superficial burn or wound) is an injury that affects the first layer of your skin. First-degree burns are one of the mildest forms of skin injuries, and they usually do not requir...

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14

Bartholin's Abscess

Bartholin's abscesses occur when the Bartholin's glands, located on either side of the opening of the vagina, become obstructed and infected. If the gland becomes blocked, a cyst will usually form first. If the cys...

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15

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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16

Addisonian Crisis (Acute Adrenal Crisis)

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

When we're stressed out, our adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps our bodies respond effectively to stress. It also plays a role in bone health, immune response, and the metabolism of food...

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17

Osteosarcoma

Osteosarcoma is a bone cancer that typically develops in the shinbone near the knee, the thighbone near the knee, or the upper arm bone near the shoulder. It is the most common type of bone cancer in children...

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18

Bone Tumor

When cells divide abnormally and uncontrollably, they can form a mass or lump of tissue. This lump is called a tumor. Bone tumors form in your bones. As the tumor grows, abnormal tissue can displace healthy tissue.Som...

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19

Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is severe scarring of the liver and poor liver function seen at the end of chronic liver disease. The scarring is most often caused by long-term exposure to toxins such as alcohol or viral infections. Th...

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20

Bone Infection (Osteomyelitis)

A bone infection, also called osteomyelitis, can result when bacteria or fungi invade a bone. In children, bone infections most commonly occur in the long bones of the arms and legs, but in adults they usually appear i...

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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.
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