Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 13, 2015

Everyone experiences swelling at some point in their life. In general, it's not something to worry about if living a normal, healthy life.


Definition & Facts

Swelling is defined as an enlargement of a part of the body. It usually includes an accumulation of fluids or infections. This can happen anywhere in the body, and can be seen if severe enough. Acute or small swelling is difficult to see unless a trained eye sees it.

Gravity can have an effect on what parts of the body swell - especially in the summer when the air is warmer. If someone can press their thumb in the middle of the swollen area and a dent forms, it is called a pitting edema. One that does not pit like that is called non-pitting.


There are many causes behind swelling. Swelling can be caused by:

Any of these causes can happen to anyone, and it can be difficult to see if it is slight. Some cause more severe swelling than others, and the more severe or larger the amount, the easier it is to see what is swelling. One other cause of leg swelling is considered to be standing or walking a lot in the heat.

When to see a doctor

If you have symptoms of a blood clot in the lungs (which can include sudden pain in the chest, coughing up blood, and having trouble breathing), signs of a blood clot (which include, but are not limited to, pain in the calf, back of the knee, groin, and thigh, as well as redness and/or swelling in the legs or groin area), or symptoms of an infection (which may include, but certainly are not limited to, a fever, red streaks, pus, or increased pain, swelling, redness, or warmth to the area), you should see a doctor.

The blood clot in the lung is the most serious, and requires a call to 911 (999 United Kingdom). Other reasons to contact a doctor include swelling that is only getting worse, the swelling is not resolving as would have been expected, difficulty breathing pops up, there is fainting, dizziness, chest pain that lasts more than only a few minutes, confusion and a pain in the legs that is new or is only getting worse. If the swelling relates back to a physical injury that has been received, it is time to see a doctor. When swelling occurs for no good reason, this is also a sign that it is time to see a doctor.

Treatment & Therapy

The first rule is to always follow your doctor's instructions. Some swelling can be addressed by simply means, and others are due to infections that should be addressed by the doctor, and the doctor only. However, there are things that can be done before the doctor's appointment if it happens to be the next day.

One of the best things to do is to continue taking any prescription medications that have been prescribed before the swelling occurred. It may be the cause, but if the medication is important, it is best not to tempt fate. Move around if sitting or standing for a long time, but avoid the movement if it hurts. There's no point in making it worse. When lying down, keep the swelling part of the body above the heart. This technique helps drain the fluids and can lessen a little bit of the swelling if it is that bad. If the swelling is too painful to handle without a doctor's help, take some over the counter medications to keep the pain down while waiting for the appointment.

Ibuprofen and Naxproxen are two types of over the counter drugs that will help relieve swelling pain. For mild swelling, there's an armada of things to do at home to help. Try to have a lower intake of sodium - as discussed above, too much sodium or salt can cause swelling in the body. Drinking fluids so that you stay hydrated is another good way to help combat mild swelling. Dehydration can cause some swelling on a particularly hot day. Keeping skin cool during warmer weather and particularly nastily warm days can achieve the same effect. Apply ice while lying down if you wish to, and rest it on pillows.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

If the swelling is being caused by a liver disease, this should go without saying, but it'll be said anyway: avoid all alcoholic beverages. Circulation issues can be exacerbated by smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products. These circulation issues can lead to increased swelling if exacerbated in this way.

Making sure to stretch the legs and exercise them to counteract gravity is a good way to prevent swelling as well. For a car or airplane trip, get up and walk around a little bit every one to two hours. This may be easier said than done in the airplane than in a car. Repetitive motions - such as those used by knitters, writers, and sewers - should be avoided or breaks taken to allow the swelling place to rest.

Discussion with doctors is always the best way to address recurring and frequent swelling from prescription medications. As already discussed, limiting the intake of salt in your diet is always a good way to help prevent swelling that is initiated by that problem. Fluids are often retained longer with higher intakes of sodium and salt.

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