What Causes Edema?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

Edema, called dropsy long ago, is swelling caused by fluid retention. This condition usually occurs in your legs, ankles, or feet. But it can also occur in your hands, face, or any other part of the body. If you have edema, how it’s treated varies... Read More

What is edema?

Edema, called dropsy long ago, is swelling caused by fluid retention. This condition usually occurs in your legs, ankles, or feet. But it can also occur in your hands, face, or any other part of the body. If you have edema, how it’s treated varies depending on what caused it.

What causes edema?

There are many different kinds and causes of edema, and it’s often a symptom of another condition.

Serious illnesses that can cause edema include:

Medications can cause edema, such as those prescribed for:

Sometimes, edema is a result of damaged or varicose veins in your legs.

Depending on the location, any surgery that involves removal of lymph nodes can result in edema. This form of edema is known as lymphedema.

A poor diet, especially one containing too much salt, can cause mild edema or worsen it when combined with other conditions. Prolonged sitting and standing can also cause edema, especially in hot weather.

When should I seek help for edema?

If you suddenly develop edema during pregnancy, call your doctor immediately, as it can be a sign of complications.

Always seek emergency assistance if you have trouble breathing. Pulmonary edema is a serious medical condition in which the lung cavities fill with fluid.

How is edema treated?

It’s important that your doctor identify the cause of your edema so that it can be treated properly. Temporary edema can often be improved by reducing your salt intake and keeping your legs up when sitting.

Treatment at home

Following are a few other things you can try to ease edema:

  • Eat a wide variety of healthy foods, avoiding packaged and processed foods that are high in salt.
  • Moderate exercise can help prevent swelling due to inactivity.
  • Avoid tobacco and alcohol.
  • Wear support stockings.
  • Try acupuncture or massage.
  • Grape seed extract may lower blood pressure and help alleviate edema related to varicose veins and poor vein function.

Medical treatment

Here is some advice you may receive for specific conditions or situations:

  • Pregnancy: Significant fluid retention can be dangerous and needs to be properly diagnosed.
  • Heart failure: Diuretics may be used in conjunction with other medications that improve heart function.
  • Cirrhosis: Eliminating all alcohol, reducing salt, and taking diuretics can improve symptoms.
  • Lymphedema: Diuretics can be helpful during early onset. Compression stockings or sleeves can also be useful.
  • Medication-induced edema: Diuretics won’t work in these cases. Your medication may need to be changed or discontinued.

Seek medical care immediately if your edema is suddenly worse, painful, or new, or if it’s associated with chest pain or trouble breathing.

Can edema be prevented?

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.

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on December 8, 2016Written by David Heitz


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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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