Swelling from inflammation or edema -- the buildup of fluid in the body -- can be caused by a variety of factors, from standing too long to congestive heart failure. Some cases resolve themselves or can be alleviated through simple, at-home methods, while persistent or unexplained swelling in the body requires medical evaluation to identify the cause.
Symptoms accompanying swelling vary depending on where in the body the swelling occurs, usually the ankles, legs, feet, face, or hands. It can cause discomfort by stiffening and restricting the range of motion of joints. In the throat, swelling can cause shortness of breath. Some swelling locations are dependent upon the cause. For instance, a bee sting can cause swelling, along with redness, burning, and pain at the site of the injury. People who have an allergic reaction to a bee sting may experience more severe swelling along with other, sometimes life-threatening, symptoms.
Three types of edema are named for the location in which they occur:
In some cases, allergic reactions can cause swelling, whether the cause is a bug bite, poison ivy, food, or another trigger. For example, an allergic reaction to food may cause swelling of the throat or tongue, which can be life-threatening. A less severe allergic reaction, such as a bug bite, may cause the skin where the bite occurred to become red, swollen, and itchy.
During pregnancy, the female body produces up to 50 percent more blood and fluid. As a result, swelling is common, specifically in the hands, face, legs, ankles, and feet. This side effect of gestation can occur at any time but is most common in the third trimester. To reduce swelling during pregnancy, experts recommend eating foods high in potassium, avoiding caffeine, resting with feet elevated, wearing supportive tights or stockings, and drinking plenty of fluids.
Sodium is critical to the body because it regulates blood volume, blood pressure, body fluids, and more. However, too much sodium can result in water retention as the body attempts to dilute the sodium levels. Edema occurs because water retention causes capillaries or small blood vessels to leak excess fluid into the tissues.
The kidneys pass waste out of the body as urine and filters blood before it flows back to the heart. When extra fluid and sodium pass through a diseased or damaged kidney, edema can occur, typically in the legs and around the eyes. Damage to the tiny blood vessels that filter blood flowing through the kidney can cause nephrotic syndrome where the amount of protein in the blood decreases dramatically. This also allows for fluid accumulation in the body.
Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart becomes too weak to pump an adequate supply of blood through the body. When blood flow slows down, fluid can build up in the lungs or other parts of the body, including the ankles, feet, legs, and, less commonly, the abdomen. People with congestive heart failure may also experience shortness of breath, fatigue, irregular heart rhythms, and chest pain. The symptoms are often worse with exertion and when lying in bed at night.
Diagnosis of edema varies based on the type and symptoms the patient experiences. The doctor will likely begin by taking a detailed medical history and exploring the patient's symptoms. A careful physical exam may give clues as to the cause of the edema. However, blood tests, a chest x-ray, and other tests may be necessary based on the findings of a physical exam.
Edema may be a symptom of an underlying disease that requires specific treatment. If the swelling goes untreated, it can lead to complications, including difficulty walking, stiffness, skin changes, and pain at the site of the swelling. However, swelling in the feet and ankles not due to underlying health problems can often be managed with simple measures such as limiting sitting or standing and consuming less sodium. It's also important to review any medications with a physician, as some can cause or worsen foot and ankle swelling.
It is best to consult a doctor when one experiences any abnormal physical symptoms for more than a few days. Prior to a medical appointment, however, individuals with swelling can try drinking more fluids, in case the cause is an excess of sodium. Increasing intake of potassium-rich foods can also help, as can applying ice packs to the swollen area. However, talk to a doctor before increasing potassium. If the cause of the swelling is kidney disease, consuming large amounts of potassium can be harmful. For swelling of the legs and ankles, elevating the legs above the heart helps reduce fluid accumulation. Compression stockings may also be helpful for chronic ankle swelling.
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