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Edema – Symptoms, Causes, Types, Treatment, Pictures

Written by Dr.Mary

Edema is swelling that is triggered by extra fluid which has become trapped in the tissues of the body. While this swelling can affect any area of the body, it is most normally seen in the arms, hands, ankles, legs and feet.


Edema may be the effect of any underlying medical problem, different drugs as well as pregnancy.

Identifying the cause and treating the underlying reason for edema is the major method of its control. Measures of self-care together with medications that aid the removal of any excessive fluid normally can treat edema effectively.

Edema Symptoms

The symptoms and signs of edema or excessive swelling consist of:

  • Puffiness or swelling of the subcutaneous tissue underneath the layer of skin
  • Shiny or stretched skin
  • Abdominal size increase
  • Skin which maintains a dimple after it has been pressed for several seconds

Any individual should see their primary care physician if any symptoms or signs of excessive swelling or edema occurs.

Immediate medical attention should be sought if the individual has any symptoms or signs of edema or excessive swelling in the lungs – known as pulmonary edema. These symptoms or signs consist of:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the chest

Pulmonary edema is possibly a life-threatening problem. The diagnosis as well as the treatment of edema in the lungs is different from other types of edema.

Edema Causes

Excessive swelling or edema happens when the minuscule blood vessels of the body known as capillaries, seep fluid. This seeping can be caused by augmented pressure in these capillaries or after damage to the capillaries. Or from depressed intensities of the serum albumin that is a protein found in the blood. When the body feels that the small capillaries are seeping, the kidneys start to maintain additional water and sodium than they normally would to reimburse the fluid lost from these capillaries. This will increase the volume of fluid that is circulating thru the body, causing the small blood vessels to leak still more. This fluid leaking from these capillaries enters the surrounding tissues causing these tissues to swell.

Mild episodes of edema can result from:

  • Staying or sitting in the same point for excessively long
  • Premenstrual symptoms and signs
  • Consuming too much food that is salty
  • Pregnancy, which causes swelling in the hands, face and feet from excessive retention of fluid

Edema can also be a consequence of certain drugs, including:

  • Vasodilators or medication that opens blood vessels
  • Calcium antagonists or calcium blockers
  • Estrogens
  • NSAIDS or Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  • Some medications for diabetes known as thiazolidinediones

There are some cases of swelling where the edema is a symptom of an underlying medical problem that is more serious. Condition and diseases that can cause swelling include:

Cirrhosis

This condition creates scarring of the liver that restricts liver functioning, causing deviations in the chemicals and the hormones that manage the fluid in the body, and increases stress inside the portal or large blood vessel that carries the blood from the spleen, intestine and pancreas to the liver. These type problems may cause fluid to accumulate in the legs and the cavity of the abdomen region – known as ascites.

Congestive heart failure

When either one or both of the lower chambers of the heart lose the ability to pump blood effectively – as happens with congestive heart failure – the blood can start backing up in the ankles, legs, as well as the feet, causing edema or excessive swelling.

Kidney disease

If an individual has kidney disease, the kidneys are not able to remove enough sodium and fluid from the blood. This excess sodium and fluid increases the pressure in the blood system, triggering excessive swelling. Edema that is associated with diseases of the kidneys will occur around the eyes as well as in the legs.

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Kidney damage

Injury to the tiny blood vessels of the kidneys known as glomeruli that normally filters waste and excess water from the blood may trigger nephrotic syndrome. An effect of nephrotic syndrome is lower levels of albumin in the blood leading to accumulation of fluid that often leads to edema.

Damage or weakness to veins of the legs

CVI or chronic venous insufficiency is a medical problem where the veins as well as the valves in the veins of the legs are damaged or weakened to the point where they cannot pump adequate blood back to the heart. The blood remaining increases the pressure in the veins causing excessive swelling or edema.

Insufficient lymphatic system

The body’s lymphatic system aids in clearing excess fluid from the tissues. When this structure is injured – because of lymphedema that transpires on its own (known as primary lymphedema) or due to any disease or disorder for instance an infection or cancer (known as secondary lymphedema), then the lymphatic node vessels draining a region might not function properly and the result is edema in that area.

When not treated, edema may cause:

  • Swelling that is increasingly painful
  • Walking with difficulty
  • Stiffness
  • Skin that is stretched and can then become uncomfortable and itchy
  • Increased risk of infection in the area that is swollen
  • Fibrous deposits in the tissues
  • Scarring between tissue layers
  • Blood circulation which is decreased
  • Arteries, veins, joints as well as muscles with decreased elasticity
  • Increasing risk of breakdown of the skin or ulceration

Edema Types

There are several specific types of edema and they consist of:

Generalized edema

This is swelling that occurs all over the body. It will cause swelling, water retention and puffiness in various body parts, including the arms, legs, face, feet and abdomen. This kind of edema has various causes including but not limited to illness, trauma, chemical imbalance or pregnancy.

Skin edema

This is welling that occurs mainly in the cells and tissues of the skin. This edema is normally harmless but can be uncomfortable. Edema of the skin can be triggered by a surface allergic reaction to a trigger that is specific such as mosquito bites, poison ivy, detergents, chemicals as well as other irritants. Skin edema is also referred to as cutaneous edema.

Peripheral edema

This edema is noticed only in the legs or arms. It is most usual in the legs, ankles and feet. This type of edema can have many causes for instance being pregnant, other health conditions or just getting older. This is the type of edema that occurs when an individual spends long times sitting or standing – like on a long airplane trip.

Pulmonary edema

This edema is quite serious and occurs when there is excess fluid in the tissues surrounding the lungs. This edema causes difficulty in breathing, having night time breathlessness when lying down or the inability to lie down. Also causes coughing up of pink, frothy, mucus. This type of edema requires immediate medical attention and if left untreated can lead to coma and death.

Edema Treatment

For the physician to make a determination on what is causing the edema, the individual will need to have a physical exam with medical history. At that point, the physician will order various tests to further help identify the cause. These tests can include:

  • Blood tests
  • Urinalysis or urine test
  • Measuring pressure in certain vessels of the blood system for instance the jugular vein
  • Chest X-ray

The treatment for edema normally will involve:

  • Treating the underlying reason for the edema
  • Medications to increase the kidneys’ output of sodium and water. These include thiazide diruetics, furosemide (known as Lasix) or spironolactone (known as Aldactone).
  • Restricting salt from the diet to decrease the retention of fluid
  • Diuretics may not be suitable to treat edema in some individual, especially thoses with chronic venous insufficiency or in most women who are pregnant.

Edema Pictures

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