Edema (water retention) is swelling caused by an excessive accumulation of fluid in the body. It typically affects the hands, feet, arms, ankles and legs, but can develop in any part of the body. The lower legs are particularly susceptible to edema due to the force of gravity.

Normally, the kidneys filter the blood and help to maintain a proper metabolic balance. However, under certain conditions, too much fluid is retained and swelling results. Mild edema may be inconsequential but, because fluid buildup can result from a serious medical condition and have grave consequences if left untreated, a physician should be consulted when symptoms are severe or prolonged.

Causes of Edema

Edema has many causes, some much more serious than others. It can result from standing or walking in excessive heat; sitting for prolonged periods; eating too much salt; getting sunburned; or being premenstrual or pregnant. More serious causes of edema include the following:

  • Lymph-node problems (particularly after a mastectomy)
  • Certain medications
  • Venous insufficiency
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Cirrhosis
  • Kidney disease
  • Chronic bronchitis or emphysema
  • Infection, injury or allergic reaction

A lack of protein in the diet can also cause edema.

Symptoms of Edema

Edema is not difficult to diagnose because most of its symptoms are apparent upon examination. Symptoms include the following:

  • Puffiness under the skin
  • Skin that appears taut or shiny
  • Increased size of the affected area
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Loss of elasticity in the skin
  • Bloating, tightness or pain at the affected site
  • Decrease in urine production

When edema is left untreated, it can cause much more serious symptoms, including shortness of breath and chest pain.

Treatment of Edema

Treatment for edema focuses on reducing the buildup of fluid. The simplest methods of reducing fluid are restricting salt intake and exercising. When edema is present in the legs, elevating them as frequently as possible is also helpful.

If further treatment is required, diuretics to promote urine production may be prescribed. When a patient has edema with hypertension, medications to lower blood pressure may be prescribed. When edema is caused by disease in the lungs, heart, kidneys or liver, the underlying conditions must be addressed.

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