What Causes Body Swelling (Edema)?

What Is Body Swelling?

Swelling or edema is caused by fluid accumulation in the extremities or body cavities. Various conditions may cause body swelling.
Swelling or edema is caused by fluid accumulation in the extremities or body cavities. Various conditions may cause body swelling.

Swelling (edema) occurs when fluid accumulates in the body’s tissues. Swelling (edema) can happen anywhere in the body, but commonly occurs in the lower legs, hands, abdomen, or chest (in or around the lungs). 

Swelling can be a symptom of a serious medical condition, and when it occurs in the lungs it can be life-threatening.

What Are Symptoms of Body Swelling?

Symptoms of swelling (edema) vary depending on where the fluid has accumulated and may include:

  • Skin puffiness, which can cause the skin to look stretched and shiny 
    • Frequently occurs with swelling in the lower legs or lower back
    • May be worse after sitting or standing for long periods
  • Dimpling of skin (pitting) after it is pressed for a few seconds
  • Distended abdomen 
  • Difficulty breathing

What Causes Body Swelling?

Swelling (edema) is caused by a number of difference conditions, such as:

  • Vascular problems (problems with the veins) in the legs 
  • Blood clots 
  • Pregnancy
  • Monthly menstrual periods
  • Side effects from certain medications such as
    • medicines for diabetes called thiazolidinediones,
    • high blood pressure medications like calcium channel blockers,
    • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain,
    • steroids, and
    • estrogens
  • Kidney problems 
  • Heart failure 
  • Liver disease
  • Long-term or severe protein deficiency
  • Problems with the lymphatic system
  • Sitting for extended periods such as when traveling 
  • Eating excessive amounts of salty foods
  • Traveling to or exercising in high altitudes 

How Is Body Swelling Diagnosed?

A doctor will take a medical history and perform a physical examination. Depending on the suspected cause of the swelling (edema), certain tests may be indicated, such as:

What Is the Treatment for Body Swelling?

Treatment for swelling (edema) depends on the cause and may include:

  • Treating the underling medical condition causing the fluid buildup
  • Diuretics to help rid the body of excess fluid
  • Compression stockings for the lower legs to reduce leg swelling
  • Dietary changes, such as avoiding or limiting salt intake
  • Elevating the legs above the heart
  • Elevating the head with pillows 

Some types of swelling may be uncomfortable but do not require treatment, such as swelling that occurs during pregnancy or before monthly menstrual periods.

What Are Complications of Body Swelling?

Complications of untreated swelling (edema) include: 

  • Stretched skin that can become itchy and stiff
  • Difficulty walking
  • Increased risk of skin ulcers 
  • Increased risk of infection 
  • Diminished circulation
  • Blood clots in the veins (deep vein thrombosis, or DVT) due to decreased circulation
  • Scarring between layers of tissue
  • Decreased elasticity of veins, arteries, muscles, and joints

How Do You Prevent Body Swelling?

You may be able to prevent some types of swelling (edema).

  • Exercise regularly
  • Reduce salt intake in the diet
  • Elevate parts of the body that may be affected by swelling above the heart
  • Massage therapy
  • Wear compression stockings
  • On flights longer than six hours,
    • get up and walk around regularly,
    • wear comfortable clothing,
    • choose a seat with extra leg room,
    • drink plenty of fluids, and 
    • avoid alcohol.


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