What Is Swelling?
Swelling occurs whenever the organs, skin, or other parts of your body enlarge. It is typically the result of inflammation or a buildup of fluid. Swelling can occur internally (within the body) or it can affect your outer skin and muscles. A range of conditions can cause swelling.
Insect bites, illnesses, or injuries often result in external swelling. Internal swelling is often a side effect of medication or the result of a serious injury. You should seek immediate medical attention if you experience rapid unexplainable swelling, especially if you also have unexplained weight gain and pain.
What Causes Swelling to Occur?
External swelling is often caused by insect bites, injuries or natural causes, such as pregnancy. Inflammation in your bones, tissues, or muscles can result in external swelling. Cysts and tumors may also cause visible swelling. Although fluid retention is an internal condition, it may also cause external swelling.
The most common causes for external swelling are:
- insect bites
- fluid retention
- hormonal changes
External swelling can be localized or widespread.
Localized swelling refers to situations where just one specific area is swollen. For instance, a person with an eye infection may experience swelling around the eyes. A person who has been stung by an insect may experience swelling in the area of the sting.
Widespread swelling occurs over a large area of the body. According to the National Institutes of Health, this is usually a sign of serious illness. (NIH) It is often due to fluid retention or an allergic reaction. Other common causes of widespread swelling are:
- kidney failure
- other organ failure
- anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction)
- venomous insect bite
People with diabetes or certain forms of cancer can experience widespread swelling, or swelling in their extremities, such as their fingers and toes. This form of swelling may appear periodically.
Inside of your body, swelling is often the result of organ inflammation, fluid retention, or flatulence. This can occur in people with chronic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and cancer.
Symptoms of Swelling
Sometimes, instances of slight swelling may go unnoticed, especially since the condition does not always cause other symptoms.
For external swelling, the enlargement of skin or muscles is normally visible. However, other signs of swelling include the buildup of fluid in the affected area; an imaging scan that shows an enlarged organ, muscle, or bone; or stomach pain. These signs can help diagnose internal swelling, which is harder to identify.
If your swelling was caused by an injury, sting, or disease, you may experience a wide range of symptoms as well. These may include:
- pain in the affected area
If the swelling is not visible or if it is internal, you may experience the following symptoms:
- flu-like symptoms
How is Swelling Diagnosed?
Your doctor may do a variety of tests to diagnose your swelling and its cause. First, he or she will go over the symptoms you are experiencing and perform a physical examination to check for tenderness in the affected area.
An imaging test, such as an ultrasound or a more specialized test such as a CT scan (computed tomography scan) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, can offer more information about the cause of the swelling. These imaging tests might reveal blockages in your arteries and veins, inflamed muscle or tissue, or bone fractures. They can also show if you are retaining fluid or have an impacted colon.
Your blood and urine will be tested to determine if a disease is causing the swelling.
If a severe allergic reaction is causing your swelling, you will be given an injection of adrenaline before any tests are administered. This medication will stop the reaction from getting any worse.
How is Swelling Treated?
Your treatment will depend on the cause of the swelling.
If a tumor or abscess is causing the swelling, you may need surgery to remove it. If the growth cannot be surgically removed because of its size or location, your doctor may order an aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation, to shrink it.
Your doctor might prescribe medication to relieve inflammation or swelling. Over-the-counter antihistamines can relieve itching and swelling caused by rashes or hives. Topical steroid medication may also be useful in easing skin inflammation. Consult with your doctor if these medications are not helping, since he or she may be able prescribe a stronger antihistamine.
If a chronic illness is causing your body to swell, you may be able to prevent further swelling by properly managing your illness or by taking medications to treat it. Medication is also used when you have internal swelling as a result of inflammation.
Your doctor may also suggest lifestyle changes to prevent internal swelling. Some at-home measures you can take include avoiding salt, wearing support pantyhose, or keeping your arms and legs above chest level when lying down.