Edema is a condition of abnormally large fluid volume in the circulatory system or in tissues between the body's cells (interstitial spaces).

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What Is Edema?

Edema, also known as dropsy, is swelling caused by fluid retention. Edema usually occurs in the legs, ankles, or feet. But it can also occur in the hands, the face, or any other part of the body. 

What Causes Edema?

Edema is usually a symptom of another condition. In women, it is often a sign of pregnancy or a sign that the menstrual cycle is about to occur (Mayo Clinic, 2011).

Serious illnesses such as heart failure, kidney disease, and liver problems (such as cirrhosis) may also cause edema.

Medications, such as those prescribed for high blood pressure, diabetes, or pain, can cause edema. Sometimes, edema is a result of damaged or varicose veins in the legs. 

After a mastectomy, edema can be a result of removal of the lymph nodes. This form of edema is known as lymphedema.

A poor diet, especially a diet containing too much salt, can cause mild edema or worsen it when combined with other conditions. Lack of activity can cause edema. But spending too much time on your feet, especially in hot weather, can worsen it (Medline Plus, 2013).

When to Seek Help for Edema

If you experience edema while pregnant, call a doctor. It can be an indicator of complications.

Seek emergency assistance if you have trouble breathing. In pulmonary edema, the lungs fill with water. This is a serious medical condition. 


The two most common solutions for alleviating edema are reducing salt intake and keeping the legs up when sitting.

Treatment at home

  • Reduce salt and eat healthily. Too much sodium can cause or aggravate edema. It's important to eat foods rich in vitamins A, C, E, and B, as well as green vegetables. Moderate exercise can keep swelling from occurring. Avoid tobacco and alcohol.
  • Wear support stockings or apply pressure to the swollen area.
  • Try acupuncture or massage. 
  • Herbal remedies such as bilberry, dandelion, and grape seed extract may alleviate edema
  • A medical professional may recommend hot or cold therapy. 

Medical treatment

If a life-threatening illness is causing edema, see a doctor immediately.

The advice you receive from a medical professional will depend upon your condition:

  • Pregnancy: Fluid retention can be dangerous for pregnant women. Diuretics may be prescribed. 
  • Heart disease: For people with heart failure, diuretics used in conjunction with other medications can improve symptoms.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver: Reducing salt and taking a diuretic improves symptoms.
  • Lymphedema: Diuretics can he helpful during the early onset of lymphedema. Now that breast cancer surgery is much less invasive, this form of edema is becoming less common (O’Brien, et al., 2005). 
  • Medication-induced edema: Diuretics do not work in these instances.

Preventing Edema

To prevent edema, stay as physically active as you are able, avoid excess sodium in your diet, and follow your doctor’s orders regarding any conditions that cause edema.

Written by: David Heitz
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George Krucik, MD, MBA
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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