What Does Being Swollen Mean?

Reviewed on 8/1/2022
An elderly woman's swollen ankles
Swelling or being swollen can be a symptom of many different conditions, including sitting for extended periods, eating excessive amounts of salty foods, vascular problems (problems with the veins) in the legs, blood clots, pregnancy, kidney problems, heart failure, liver disease, and others.

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

Being swollen can be a symptom of many different conditions, some of which are minor and will resolve on their own with rest or home treatment, and others that can be a serious medical condition. When swelling occurs in the lungs, brain, or throat it can be life-threatening. 

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

  • Sitting for extended periods such as when traveling 
  • Eating excessive amounts of salty foods
  • 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
  • Traveling to or exercising in high altitudes 

What Are Symptoms of 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 

How Is Swelling Diagnosed?

The cause of swelling (edema) is diagnosed with a patient history and a physical examination. Depending on the suspected cause of the swelling, tests that may be indicated include:

What Is the Treatment for 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 therapy (i.e., compression bandaging, compression garments)
  • Dietary changes, such as avoiding or limiting salt intake
  • Not standing or sitting for prolonged periods
  • Elevating the legs above the heart
  • Elevating the head with pillows 
  • Gentle exercise, such as walking, to help improve blood flow
  • Avoiding tight clothing, socks, or shoes 
  • Reducing salt consumption 
  • Losing weight if overweight or obese
  • RICE method for injuries
    • Rest the injured area
    • Ice to decrease swelling, pain, and redness
    • Compression to support the injured and prevent inflammation
    • Elevation to prop up the affected area and help reduce fluid buildup 
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain
  • Range of motion exercises (depending on the type of injury)
  • Splints and braces
  • Anticoagulants, if swelling is due to blood clots
  • Antibiotics, of swelling is due to infection
  • Surgery, depending on the cause
  • Stopping or switching medications that may cause or contribute to swelling
    • Don’t stop taking prescribed medication without first talking to your doctor

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

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Reviewed on 8/1/2022
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