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2nd June, 20219 min read

Oedema: Symptoms, causes and treatment

Medical reviewer: Dr Ann Nainan
Author: Dr Lauretta Ihonor
Last reviewed: 04/05/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

What is oedema?

Oedema is the medical term for swelling that’s caused by a build-up of fluid (also called fluid retention) in the spaces between your cells. It used to be called dropsy, and it can affect most body parts.

Sometimes oedema causes swelling that’s easily seen, like when it affects your lower legs, ankles, feet, eyes and tummy. But at other times, the fluid pools inside an organ and leads to symptoms, like shortness of breath, but without causing any swelling you can see.

Mild swelling of areas like your ankles and feet is common – especially if you sit, stand or hold the same position for long periods of time. This swelling is usually harmless and goes away on its own within a few days. But more noticeable swelling of any body part can be a sign of a serious condition that needs medical attention. That's why it's best to see a doctor if you have oedema.

What are the different types of oedema?

There are several types of oedema, each named after the part of the body it affects. They include:

  • peripheral oedema – fluid build-up in your arms, hands, legs and/or feet
  • cerebral oedema – fluid build-up in and around your brain, usually caused by physical damage to your brain (like a stroke or trauma) or a brain infection (like meningitis)
  • ascites – fluid build-up in your tummy, often caused by liver disease
  • pulmonary oedema – fluid build-up in your lungs, often caused by heart failure
  • lymphoedema – a build-up of lymph fluid, often caused by damage to your lymph channels

Oedema can also be described as generalised (affecting your whole body) or localised (affecting a specific part of your body).

What are the symptoms of oedema?

The main symptom of oedema is swelling of the affected part of your body. In some cases, this may look like obvious swelling or puffiness, but at other times, it may look like shiny, stretched skin, which may also be red.

This swelling often happens gradually, but in some cases it may appear suddenly.

You may also have other symptoms depending on the cause of the oedema and the area of your body affected. These symptoms may include:

  • puffy eyes – especially on waking up in the morning
  • your skin or body feeling tight or full
  • pain in the swollen body part
  • a swollen tummy – if you have oedema in your tummy
  • shortness of breath or trouble breathing as normal – if you have oedema in your lungs
  • heavy, achy arms and legs, trouble moving around, thickened skin and clear fluid leaking from your skin – if you have a build-up of lymph fluid
  • a really bad headache – if you have fluid build-up around your brain

When to see a doctor about oedema

Oedema is often harmless, but sometimes it can be a sign of something more serious – even if the swelling seems mild. See a doctor as soon as possible if any part of your body swells up, especially if you’re pregnant or have diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease or lung disease.

If your arms or legs tend to swell a little when you’ve been sitting, standing or not moving a lot, see a doctor if the swelling starts to get worse or doesn’t get better within a few days.

You should call an ambulance or go to an emergency department if:

  • the swelling started suddenly, is really bad and/or hurts a lot
  • the swollen body part is red and warm
  • only 1 leg, arm or hand is swollen and there's no clear reason for the swelling
  • you have a fever and/or feel generally unwell
  • you feel hot and shivery
  • you’re having trouble breathing as normal
  • you have a really bad headache
  • you have chest pain or your chest feels tight or heavy
  • you’re coughing up blood
  • you’re peeing less or not peeing at all
  • your skin or the whites of your eyes turn yellow

What causes oedema?

Many things can cause oedema – some more serious than others. But sometimes, there’s no clear cause. This is known as idiopathic oedema.

In general, some causes of oedema are related to your lifestyle, while others are related to an underlying medical condition.

Lifestyle causes of oedema

Some of the most common causes of oedema are linked to daily habits and lifestyle. These include:

  • staying in the same position for too long – this includes lying in bed, travelling or generally sitting or standing for a long time
  • eating too much salty food
  • being overweight

Medical conditions that can cause oedema

Normal body changes caused by being pregnant or having a period can cause oedema, but so can medical conditions, including:

While oedema in pregnancy is common and usually harmless, it can be a sign of a more serious condition called pre-eclampsia. If you have pre-eclampsia, you may develop other symptoms like headaches, problems with your vision and feeling generally unwell. If you notice any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately.

How is oedema diagnosed?

A doctor will usually suspect you have oedema based on your symptoms. They may also ask you about other medical conditions you have or have had in the past, and then look at and feel the swollen area.

Because oedema is a symptom, rather than a condition itself, a doctor will usually focus on diagnosing the cause of oedema, so they may ask questions about your lifestyle, recent injuries and medications you’re taking.

They may also examine other parts of your body and do tests to look for signs of the possible cause. This may involve:

  • listening to your heart and lungs
  • blood tests
  • urine tests
  • imaging tests – such as ultrasound scans of your legs if you have leg swelling

What is pitting oedema?

During a physical exam, a doctor may also classify your oedema as ‘pitting’ or ‘non-pitting’. If you have pitting oedema, pressing firmly on the swollen area for around 5 seconds will leave a small dent or ‘pit’ mark. But if you have non-pitting oedema, pressing on it won’t leave a dent. Both types of oedema can have different causes.

How is oedema treated?

Not all types of oedema need to be treated. For example, oedema that’s caused by a monthly period or pregnancy usually doesn’t need to be treated as it tends to get better when the period or pregnancy ends.

When oedema is treated, the focus is usually on treating the underlying cause, avoiding things that make your symptoms worse and, sometimes, encouraging your body to remove excess water.

Specific treatments for oedema include:

  • cutting down on salt in your diet
  • wearing compression stockings – if you have leg oedema
  • losing weight if you’re overweight – speak to a doctor for advice on how to lose weight safely
  • doing regular exercise – speak to a doctor for specific advice on how much exercise you should do
  • keeping your legs raised when possible – if you have leg, ankle or foot oedema
  • taking a type of medication, called diuretics, that helps remove excess water from your body – only take these if a doctor has told you to

If you have pulmonary oedema, you’ll usually need emergency treatment in hospital as it’s a potentially life-threatening condition. Read more about how pulmonary oedema that's caused by heart failure is treated.

Cerebral oedema is also potentially life-threatening and needs emergency treatment in hospital. Read more about its possible causes, including a severe head injury or stroke.

What can I expect after having oedema?

What you can expect after having oedema really depends on the cause. Some causes of oedema, like heart failure or kidney disease, are serious and usually need ongoing treatment. But other causes of oedema, like standing up for a long time or eating too much salt, are less serious and often get better with a few lifestyle changes.

The most important thing is to see a doctor if you have oedema. They’ll be able to explore the possible causes and give you advice on the best treatment for you.

Your health questions answered

Will drinking more water help with oedema?

Dehydration can contribute to mild oedema because when your body is dehydrated, it can hold onto more fluid than normal. This means that drinking more water may help with some cases of oedema. But there are many causes of oedema, some more serious than others, so you should see a doctor before trying to treat it yourself.

What happens if oedema is left untreated?

Mild oedema is often harmless and usually gets better on its own, but oedema can be dangerous if it isn’t treated. Some types, like pulmonary and cerebral oedema, are life-threatening and should be treated immediately. It’s not always easy to tell if you have a serious cause of oedema, so it’s best to see a doctor if you have swelling of a body part or your whole body.

What is pitting oedema?

Pitting oedema is when you press on a swollen part of your body and a pit or dimple remains for a few seconds after you press it. If you have pitting oedema, it’s important to see a doctor to determine the cause. Answered by Dr Aleem Qureshi from the Healthily Medical Team

Key takeaways

  • oedema is a buildup of fluid in spaces between your body's cells
  • it can affect most parts of your body
  • it has many causes, including being overweight, pregnancy, standing or sitting for too long, and heart, kidney or liver disease
  • the treatment for oedema depends on its cause, but specific lifestyle changes can help improve less serious types of oedema
  • both pulmonary and cerebral oedema are life-threatening types of oedema that need immediate medical treatment
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