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Edema- Causes, Diagnosis, Risk Factors, and Treatment.

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Edema or dropsy is swelling resulting from excess fluid trapped in the body tissues. Read the article below to know more about it.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sugreev Singh

Published At December 6, 2022
Reviewed AtJanuary 23, 2024

What Is Edema?

Edema, also called dropsy, is swelling resulting from excessive fluid retention in the body tissues. This condition can involve any body part, but it usually affects the feet, legs, hands, arms, or ankles. Edema can happen due to side effects of certain medications, pregnancy, or an underlying disease, including congestive heart failure (a chronic illness when the capacity of the heart to pump blood enough to meet the body's demands is compromised), kidney disorder, or liver cirrhosis (a disorder that leaves the liver permanently damaged and scarred).

What Causes Edema?

Edema occurs when tiny blood vessels in the body called capillaries leak fluid. As a result, the fluid accumulates in surrounding tissues, leading to swelling.

Mild edema can result from:

  • High salt intake.

  • Staying in the same position for long periods.

  • Premenstrual signs and symptoms.

  • Pregnancy.

  • Standing or walking too much in warm weather.

Edema can also occur as a side effect of some medications, including:

However, in some cases, edema can signify a more serious underlying medical condition. Several medical conditions that can cause edema are as follows:

  • Congestive heart failure.

  • Liver disease.

  • Kidney damage.

  • Liver cirrhosis.

  • Thyroid disease.

  • Infections.

  • Allergic reactions.

  • Certain cancers.

  • Blood clots.

  • Inadequate lymphatic system.

  • Long-term protein deficiency.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Edema?

The common signs and symptoms of edema include:

  • Swelling or puffiness in the affected areas, particularly edema in the legs or arms.

  • Stretched or shiny skin.

  • The skin gets dimples or pits after the skin is pressed for a few seconds (pitting edema).

  • Increased abdominal size.

  • The sensation of heavy legs.

What Are the Risk Factors of Edema?

Several factors can increase someone's probability of developing edema, including:

  • Pregnancy: The body retains more salt and water than normal during pregnancy due to the fluid required by the fetus and placenta. This increases the risk of developing edema.

  • Poor Diet: A diet containing too much salt can cause mild edema. A poor diet can also worsen edema when combined with other conditions.

  • Malnutrition: Malnutrition, along with a low protein intake, can cause hypoalbuminemia, which can result in edema.

  • Staying in the Same Position for a Longer Time: Prolonged sitting, standing, or walking can also cause edema, especially on warm days.

  • Obesity: Being overweight and obese are often associated with a higher risk of developing edema.

  • Varicose Veins: Poor blood circulation by varicose veins can also lead to edema.

What Are the Potential Complications of Edema?

Untreated or uncontrolled edema can cause further complications, including:

  • Increased swelling.

  • Severe pain.

  • Difficulty walking.

  • Itching or discomfort.

  • Stiffness.

  • Scarring between layers of tissue.

  • Infection in the swollen area.

  • Decreased blood circulation

  • Reduced elasticity of arteries, veins, joints, and muscles.

  • Skin ulcerations.

When to Visit a Doctor?

See a doctor immediately if:

  • Having difficulty breathing, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

  • Having unbearable pain and swelling that does not resolve.

  • Persistent leg pain and swelling. It can indicate a blood clot deep in the vein.

  • Redness or warmth in the swollen area.

How Is Edema Diagnosed?

The doctor often performs a thorough physical examination and takes a medical history to determine the underlying cause of the edema. The doctor can also prescribe X-rays, ultrasound exams, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), blood tests, or urine analysis if necessary.

How Is Edema Treated?

  • Mild edema typically goes away on its own. However, more severe edema cases may be treated with diuretics or water pills, drugs that help the body get rid of excess fluid in the form of urine. Furosemide is one of the most common diuretics. The doctor often determines which medications are good for a person based on personal medical history.

  • Long-term edema management typically aims at treating the underlying cause of the swelling. If edema develops due to medication use, the doctor may adjust the prescription or check for alternative medications that do not cause edema.

At-Home Treatment:

At-home care is equally important to reduce edema. The following steps may help decrease edema and keep it from recurring.

  • Movement: Moving the muscles in the edematous or swollen part of the body, especially the legs, may help pump the excess fluid back from the legs toward the heart. Speak to a doctor to learn about exercises that may help reduce swelling.

  • Elevation: Hold the edematous body part above the level of the heart multiple times a day. In some cases, elevating the swollen body part while sleeping may be helpful. For example, put a pillow under the legs while lying down or sitting for long periods.

  • Massage: Massaging using firm, but not painful, pressure can help treat edema by pushing the excess fluid from the body.

  • Compression: If one of the limbs is affected by edema, the doctor may suggest wearing compression stockings, sleeves, or gloves to prevent further swelling. These clothing items keep pressure on the limbs to prevent fluid build-up in the tissue.

  • Protection: Keep the swollen area clean, moisturized, and free from injury or trauma. Dry, cracked skin is more vulnerable to scrapes, cuts, and infection. Always wear protection on the feet if swelling frequently occurs.

  • Reduce Salt Intake: Limiting or taking a low-salt diet can help relieve edema symptoms, as salts can increase fluid retention and worsen edema.

  • Quit Smoking: If edema develops from a lung disease, such as emphysema (a lung condition) or chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchi), the doctor may advise quitting smoking.

Is Edema After Surgery Normal?

One thing to remember is that following surgery, edema is very natural. Making incisions during surgery usually results in edema throughout the healing process, which takes time. Thousands of cells are delivered to the surgical site following surgery, and they immediately begin to assist the body heal more quickly. At the site of the surgery, edema and inflammation may result from these cells clumping together.

What Impacts Edema After Surgery?

After surgery, some swelling is common, but edema can also result from a number of different sources. The degree of edema one feels after surgery even depends on the kind of operation one had. The following are some major variables that impact edema following surgery:

  • Procedure type.

  • Surgical area.

  • Genetics.

  • Lifestyle.

How to Prevent Edema?

The following tips can help avoid edema:

  • Stay physically active as much as possible.

  • Avoid taking excess sodium in the diet.

  • Understand the underlying cause of the edema and try to address it immediately.

  • Maintain a healthy weight.

What Is the Outlook or Prognosis for People With Edema?

The overall prognosis of edema depends on the underlying cause. The symptoms of edema typically improve after proper rest and at-home treatment. However, edema can be serious if untreated, particularly if edema is in the lungs. However, the outlook is generally good if the underlying condition is recognized and addressed.

Conclusion:

Edema is when swelling occurs due to excess fluid trapped in the body's tissues. Although edema can involve any body part, one may notice it commonly in the hands, arms, feet, ankles, and legs. Edema can result from certain medications, underlying medical conditions, or other conditions. Mild edema cases are often resolved on their own. However, diuretics (water pills) and home remedies effectively relieve edema symptoms. In addition, several preventive measures can help avoid the development of edema.

Dr. Sugreev Singh
Dr. Sugreev Singh

Internal Medicine

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