Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at September 1, 2016

A medical term that is used to describe swelling in various areas throughout the body, edema has a variety of causes and health implications. Whether it is from an injury or from infection, edema can last for a few minutes or be a constant ailment that requires medication and other treatments. No matter the cause of the edema, swelling can complicate a person's daily routine, especially if the edema is located in one or both legs, feet, or ankles.


Definition & Facts

Edema can affect all parts of the body and involves the collection and retention of fluids. Most commonly, edema occurs in the lower extremities (lower limbs), and it usually will show up around a person's legs and feet. When it affects the appendages, it is called peripheral edema. When it affects the abdomen, edema is called ascites.

Side effects of medications, insect bites and stings, complications from cardiovascular disease, bodily injuries, and excessive fluid intake are all some of the causes of edema. Swelling can develop from a number of underlying conditions and can affect various cavities throughout the body.

Symptoms & Complaints

A number of symptoms can indicate that edema has set in. In addition to swelling of the hands, feet, legs, and ankles, edema can sometimes involve pain and tightness of the skin.

Other symptoms of edema include weight gain from fluid retention and shortness of breath. Edema can cause breathing problems for those who are having issues and complications from pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs).


Swelling in the ankles, legs, and feet may result from hypertension and heart disease. When the heart is too weak to adequately circulate blood throughout the body as in cases of heart failure, blood can linger in the veins which excrete fluid that then manifests as edema. Capillaries which are small or tiny blood vessels, will sometimes leak out fluids to tissues that surround the area, resulting in minor or major swelling depending on the nature of the edema.

When it comes to children and adults, there are a number of different diseases and conditions that cause edema. These conditions can range from minor to serious, including:

Diagnosis & Tests

A condition that is most often visually observable, edema can be tested through physical examination as well as through a clinical urine tests or blood tests. A doctor will likely inquire about the individual's medical history, family history, and their diet to ensure that an accurate cause for the diagnosis is achieved and that a treatment plan can be planned out.

Other factors the doctor may consider include drinking habits and sodium intake, because sodas are typically loaded with salt which is a leading cause of swelling. Alcoholism is another cause of edema, which is why a patient's drinking habits will be inquired about.

The medical professional will also examine areas that are swollen to determine if the skin is stretched and appears shiny. He or she will push, using fingers (palpation), gently into the area to determine if a pit or dimple mark is left behind. This will determine if the edema is pitting or non-edema.

Other tests may be ordered by the physician, including chest X-rays, which may help them to detect any underlying diseases or disorders that may be causing the edema.

Treatment & Therapy 

Treating edema requires a diagnosis of any underlying causes so that these conditions can be addressed. If the swelling is caused by allergies, the doctor may prescribe an allergy medicine like an antihistamine to help alleviate the symptoms of both edema and allergies.

When the disease is caused by a fluid drainage block, the treatment may include drainage. If the edema is a result of a blood clot, blood-thinning medication may be used to treat the clot thereby treating the swelling.

When edema is a result of a tumor that is determined to be blocking blood flow or lymph, the treatment may require surgery to remove or shrink the tumor.

For edema brought on by either liver disease or heart failure, diuretics (fluid pill, laxative, or water pill) may be prescribed to the patient. A diuretic is a medicine that works to enable the body to rid itself of fluids through urination. When a person takes the medication, they can expect to use the bathroom often for a few hours, and they may want to schedule their daily activities accordingly.

When caused by an insect bite, edema will usually disappear within a few minutes to a couple of hours. If edema develops in the face or throat, it is typically a reaction to a food allergy, and emergency medical attention should be sought to treat anaphylaxis.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

There are many different steps that can be taken to prevent edema in certain cases. When a person can do so, avoiding a sitting position too long or allowing their legs and feet to hang are two ways that may help reduce the symptoms of edema in the legs, ankles and feet.

It is also recommended that an individual experiencing common symptoms of swelling in the extremities eliminate certain foods and drinks in their diet that contain high counts of salt; eliminating salt altogether can also help to prevent related swelling in the body.

Other options for edema prevention for people with no other underlying illness can include drinking water throughout the day, exercising on a regular basis, quitting smoking, and reducing or eliminating alcohol ingestion.

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