What Is Edema?

All of a sudden, you may wake up one morning with a swollen face, hands, or feet, which have grown twice their size. You may even step off of a long airplane flight and notice a fullness or heaviness in your arms and legs. Maybe your wedding ring starts feeling tight. All of these are signs of edema. Should you be worried?

What Is Edema?

Edema occurs when excess fluid collects between the tissues in your body. This is caused by the secretions of tiny capillaries (blood vessels) under the skin. The trapped fluid can build up in the tissues surrounding the affected blood vessels, causing swelling known as edema. 

Signs of edema include:

  • When you push on your skin, it leaves a dimple
  • Puffiness and swelling under the skin (most often in your arms and legs)
  • Skin that seems shiny and stretched too tight
  • Stomach or abdominal bloating

Edema can be serious or can go away on its own. If the cause of your edema is a water retention issue, lowering your salt intake, staying hydrated, and exercising can help reduce swelling. Another common cause of edema is an allergic reaction to medication or food. In more serious cases, edema may indicate a serious illness that needs immediate treatment.

What Causes Edema?

Edema is usually the result of several underlying conditions that range from mild to serious. For instance, patients can develop edema simply by sitting in one place for too long. Water retention can also result from eating too much salt, being on your period, or pregnancy. 

Medications that cause edema include:

  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Chemotherapy 
  • Diabetes treatments (thiazolidinediones)
  • Estrogen supplements
  • High blood pressure medications
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories
  • Steroids
  • Vasodilators

Edema can also occur as a result of serious illnesses:

  • Cirrhosis (liver damage that causes fluid to pool in the abdominal cavity and legs)
  • Congestive heart failure (causes blood to pool in your extremities)
  • Kidney disease (impacts your body’s ability to eliminate waste, causing extra salt and fluids to circulate in the body)
  • Lymphatic issues (prevent the body from clearing excess fluid)
  • Vascular issues (poor circulation causes blood and fluids to pool beneath the skin)
  • Protein deficiencies

Vein blockages or abnormally functioning veins, such as blood clots or venous insufficiency, can cause fluid buildup. A tumor or a cyst can cause edema if it's pressing against a vein or a lymph duct. Even hormone replacement therapy can trigger edema.


Many of these issues can be serious and cause different forms of edema to develop in the body.

Are There Different Types of Edema?

There are several different types of edema that occur in the body. Some of the most common forms of the condition include:

  • Cerebral edema (occurs in the brain)
  • Macular edema (a complication of diabetes that manifests in the eyes)
  • Periorbital edema (puffiness around the eye’s orbit, or the outside of the socket) 
  • Peripheral edema (affects bodily extremities, including the arms, hands, and legs)
  • Pitting edema (can occur anywhere–the chief symptom is the indentation of the skin when pressed)
  • Pulmonary edema (a dangerous condition where fluid collects in the lungs, making it hard to breathe)

Untreated edema caused by an underlying condition is serious and can cause:

  • Decreased mobility and elasticity of the muscles
  • Joint stiffness
  • Painful swelling
  • Problems walking
  • Scarring
  • Skin splits, ulcers, and risk of infection

Note that all of these problems can occur in addition to the symptoms of the underlying illness that caused the edema to occur. For this reason alone, patients with edema should seek help from a physician.

When Should You See Your Doctor About Edema?

Because edema is often linked to several serious illnesses, you should see your doctor immediately if symptoms occur. Stretched or shiny skin, swelling, and pitting are all red flags that require further evaluation by a medical professional. A doctor will diagnose the underlying cause of the edema and recommend an appropriate treatment. 

Seek immediate assistance if you are experiencing: 

  • Chest pain
  • Problems breathing
  • Shortness of breath

All three are signs of pulmonary edema, which can be dangerous if left untreated. 

See a doctor immediately if you develop swelling and pain in your legs after sitting for long periods. These issues may indicate that a blood clot has formed in your legs. 

To understand the underlying cause of your edema, a doctor will conduct a physical exam and review your medical history. Additional testing such as an X-ray, MRI, urine analysis or a blood draw may be necessary to reach a diagnosis.

How Is Edema Treated?

Elevating the affected limb may cause the edema to go down on its own. More severe edema cases may require medications called diuretics (water pills), which help the body expel excess fluid and salt through urine. However, diuretics do not work for everyone.

Chronic edema requires a long-term treatment plan. In many cases, this involves treating the underlying conditions that caused the edema in combination with diuretics, as well as home management of the illness. 

For patients with edema, doctors often recommend:

  • Avoiding standing or sitting for long stretches
  • Changing medications (if edema is a side effect)
  • Elevating your extremities above your heart when you are lying down or sitting
  • Exercising daily to improve the circulation of fluids in the body
  • Limiting your salt intake
  • Massages
  • Protecting the swollen area by keeping it clean and injury-free
  • Wearing support compression stockings if you have edema in the legs

Anyone can be afflicted with edema. The condition is not genetic and not transmissible between individuals.

If you are experiencing lower extremity swelling, don’t hesitate to reach out to our experienced team of vascular specialists at the Ellison Vein Institute. Call us today at (904) 394-5347 to schedule an appointment.

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