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Lahey Health is now part of Beth Israel Lahey Health

by EBSCO Medical Review Board
(Fluid Retention)

Definition

Edema is a buildup of fluid in the body’s tissues. It can happen anywhere in the body but is most common in legs and arms.

Causes

Fluid is moved through the body in the blood vessels. Edema can be caused by a change in this system such as:

  • Blockage in lymph or blood vessels
  • Damage to blood vessels or lymph
  • Problems with how the body balances fluids in the body—may be caused by illness or medicine

Risk Factors

The risk of edema may be higher with:

  • Heart, kidney, liver, or lung disease
  • Pregnancy—increased pressure on blood vessels of lower body
  • Medicines, such as corticosteroids and chemotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Blood vessel disease such as chronic venous insufficiency or deep vein thrombosis
  • Cancer
  • Trauma with severe swelling

Symptoms

Edema will cause:

  • Areas of puffy, swollen, stretched, or shiny skin
  • Problems moving swollen body parts
  • Problems walking
  • Weight gain

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. This is often enough to make the diagnosis of edema. Tests may be done if the cause is not clear.

Treatment

Edema may go away once the cause is treated. The exact treatment will depend on the cause. Steps that may help to ease edema include:

  • Medicine that helps the body get rid of extra fluids
  • Elevation of the arm or leg when resting
  • Use of compression sleeves or stockings
  • Increase in movement and avoiding long periods of standing or sitting

A high-salt diet can make edema worse. A low-salt diet may be recommended to decrease swelling.

Long-term or severe edema can cause a breakdown of skin over the area. Skin care over the area and immediate treatment of sores will also be needed. Some edema can cause breathing problems. This is an emergency and will be treated in a hospital.

Prevention

Edema cannot always be prevented. Moving often and low-salt diets may help those at risk for edema.

RESOURCES

Cancer.net—American Society of Clinical Oncology  http://www.cancer.net 

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians  http://www.familydoctor.org 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Lymphedema Framework  https://canadalymph.ca 

Health Canada  http://www.canada.ca 

References

Edema. Cleveland Clinic website. Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12564-edema. Updated October 25, 2018. Accessed October 7, 2019.

Edema. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/condition/edema. Updated June 21, 2017. Accessed October 7, 2019.

Edema—approach to the patient. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:  https://www.dynamed.com/approach-to/edema-approach-to-the-patient  .Updated October 9, 2017. Accessed October 7, 2019.

Revision Information