What is anasarca?

Everyone experiences swelling in their bodies from time to time. It can occur due to:

  • menstruation
  • pregnancy
  • medication
  • diet
  • dehydration
  • overhydration
  • injury
  • another underlying medical condition

This type of swelling is called edema. It often affects the hands, arms, feet, ankles, and legs, but it can occur in any part of the body.

In some cases, edema can be severe and affect the whole body. When that happens, the skin and its underlying tissues will retain salt and water, causing swelling all over the body. This condition is called anasarca, also known as extreme generalized edema.

Most cases of edema affect 1 or 2 areas of the body (for example, one or both lower extremities). Anasarca affects the whole body and is more extreme than regular edema. With anasarca, a person’s whole body — from their head to their feet — will appear very swollen.

Symptoms of anasarca include:

  • skin that will show a dimple after you press a finger onto it for several seconds
  • high or low blood pressure
  • slow or fast heart rate
  • failing organ systems, particularly the liver and kidneys

An extreme case of anasarca can be uncomfortable or debilitating. It can make you immobile, as swelling can make it almost impossible to walk or move your limbs. Swelling in the face may also impair your vision by making it difficult to open your eyes.

Some cases of anasarca can be an emergency. If you’re experiencing the above symptoms plus shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or chest pain, seek emergency treatment immediately. These can be signs of pulmonary edema, which is a fluid buildup inside the lungs. It can quickly become a life-threatening condition.

The most common causes of anasarca include:

Less common causes include:

  • administration of excess intravenous fluids
  • use of some anticancer chemotherapy drugs, such as docetaxel (Taxotere), which results in a condition called capillary leak syndrome
  • hemoglobin (Hb) Bart in alpha-thalassemia, a genetic condition where a person is born producing hemoglobin (iron-containing blood protein) with an abnormal structure that holds onto oxygen too tightly, causing oxygen to be improperly delivered to tissues throughout the body
  • use of a dihydropyridine calcium channel blocker, such as amlodipine (Norvasc, also together in the same pill with benazepril in Lotrel), to treat high blood pressure

If you have some of the symptoms of anasarca, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. They will first perform a physical examination and ask about your medical history. The goal of the appointment is to determine what underlying condition is causing your anasarca. To do this, your doctor will run a variety of tests. These may include:

  • a blood test series to check heart function, liver function, kidney function, and hemoglobin levels
  • a CT scan to look at your chest cavity (heart, lungs, and related anatomy)
  • a heart ultrasound, called an echocardiogram
  • a stress test to check heart function
  • allergy tests

Successful treatment of anasarca is dependent on the underlying condition being properly treated. Once you’re diagnosed and treated for whatever condition is causing your anasarca, it may go away in time.

Doctors may additionally treat severe cases of anasarca with drugs that help the body expel excess fluid in the urine. These drugs are called diuretics. A common type of diuretic is called furosemide (Lasix), which is a loop diuretic.

Home treatments

The following home-care tips may also speed the treatment of your anasarca:

  • Keep moving: Exercise can help pump excess fluid back to your heart. But if you have heart problems, be sure to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise regimen.
  • Massage: Gently massaging your flesh in the direction of your heart may help reduce swelling.
  • Reduce salt intake: Decreasing the amount of salt you eat can sometimes reduce swelling associated with anasarca.

Anasarca goes away in most cases when the underlying condition is effectively treated. Following the treatment plan your doctor prescribes can help keep you healthy and prevent anasarca from reoccurring.