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A woman's hands shown with edema

What is Edema?

If you’ve ever been stung by a bee or bitten by a mosquito, you have had edema. Edema is simply the medical term for the swelling of tissues as the body responds to injury or discomfort. In some cases, edema can result from something as small and simple, such as a twisted ankle or bug bite; in others, it can be a result of a serious condition which requires immediate medical attention. In this post, we discuss the causes, symptoms, and risk factors for edema, as well as treatment options that can prevent it from returning.


Edema is caused when tiny blood vessels, or capillaries, leak fluids into the surrounding tissues. The most common areas to be affected by edema are the hands, arms, feet, legs, and ankles. In some ways, edema can be beneficial, because the fluid released by the blood vessels allows more infection-fighting white blood cells to enter the affected area. However, edema can also affect more serious areas, like the throat or lungs, in which case it must be treated immediately. Some common causes of mild edema are:

  • Sitting in one position for too long (such as on long flights)
  • Eating too much sodium
  • Premenstrual symptoms
  • Pregnancy
  • Allergic reactions
  • Headaches
  • Certain medications, such as NSAIDs

Severe diseases and conditions which result in edema are:

  • Blood clots (such as deep vein thrombosis)
  • Tumors that block lymph or blood flow
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cirrhosis (due to fluid accumulation in the abdomen)
  • Chronic venous insufficiency
  • Life-threatening infections
  • Heart disease or congestive heart failure
  • Kidney disease or kidney damage
  • Head trauma or brain tumors (for cerebral edema)
  • Other critical conditions, such as burns
  • A damaged lymphatic system


Most of the time, edema has only a few mild symptoms and requires limited treatment. However, when symptoms are severe, it is crucial to visit a doctor immediately.

Symptoms of mild edema include:

  • Swollen, puffy skin
  • Tight, shiny skin which may become itchy
  • Pain and difficulty moving or walking
  • Skin that retains a dimple after being pressed

Symptoms of severe edema include:

  • Heavy legs which can weigh 5-10 additional pounds
  • Skin ulcers due to restricted blood flow
  • Shortness of breath
  • A heavy, thick cough
  • Chest pain

If left untreated, edema can cause infection in the swollen area, scarring between layers of tissue, or skin ulcers. As a symptom of a potentially larger, more dangerous condition, the previous five symptoms should be addressed immediately.


Severe edema is generally treated with medications that assist the body in expelling excess fluids through urine. If your edema is caused by a medication, your doctor may adjust your prescription or switch you to an alternative. If you are suffering from an underlying disease or condition, treatment will focus on treating the condition rather than the side-effect. Mild edema will generally go away on its own and can be treated with common over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs. As you heal, you can assist your recovery by using the R.I.C.E technique: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Elevating the affected limb higher than your heart can significantly reduce your inflammation, especially if you do it several times a day. Reducing your salt intake is also highly recommended, as sodium increases fluid retention.

Your doctor may also recommend that you wear compression sleeves, which sustain pressure on your limbs to prevent fluid from collecting in the tissues. Compression sleeves have the added benefit of keeping the affected limb clean, moisturized, and protected, as skin that has been stretched by edema is prone to more scrapes, cuts, and infections.