Ever notice that a ring seems a bit tight on your finger—or an ankle has become a cankle? That’s swelling, aka edema. It happens when fluid builds up in your tissues, often “leaking” out of nearby blood vessels. It most often occurs in the feet, legs, fingers and hands and abdomen (bloating). Some causes are minor, others more serious. Here are the top nine causes—and what to do about each one.
Gravity pulls fluids into your legs and feet. If you’re moving around, your muscles push on blood vessels, promoting blood flow, which can limit swelling. But if you stand for a long time without moving much, your blood vessels don’t get this assist—and fluid can pool in your ankles. Even sitting for a long period without a break can lead to swelling, or postural edema. What to do: If you need to stand for long periods, take frequent breaks—and make sure you walk around. This swelling is usually temporary and will typically go away once you move around. Propping up your feet on a break can help, too—you’re enlisting gravity on your side.
When you get hot, your blood vessels expand, making them more likely to leak fluid into surrounding tissues. Heat edema usually occurs in the ankles and feet but can also cause fingers to swell. What to do: Cool down, drink water. (Hydrating will not only help you cool down but will stimulate urination and that helps reduce excess fluids and edema.) Elevate your legs (or your hands if they are swollen). If you can, take a dip in a cool pool or take a cool shower. As your body cools, swelling will subside.
Every woman knows that hormonal changes from her menstrual cycle can lead to water retention and bloating. It usually occurs one to two weeks before your period and often in the abdomen. At the same time, hormonal fluctuations can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms, another cause of abdominal bloating. What to do: If you’re very uncomfortable, you can try taking “water pills” (diuretics) to help your body lose some of the excess fluid through your kidneys—talk to your doctor about it.
During pregnancy, a woman’s body produces about 50% more blood and body fluids. That can lead to swelling. You might not notice it in your belly thanks to your baby bump, but you will notice it in your feet, especially during the third trimester. What to do: Put your feet up, take breaks from sitting or standing, and wear supportive socks and tights. (Warning: See a doctor immediately if you have excessive swelling—it could be a sign of a serious condition called preeclampsia.)
As your veins age, they work less efficiently, causing circulation to slow and blood vessels to dilate. That leads blood vessels to leak fluid into surrounding tissue, causing swelling. What to do: Consider compression socks and stockings, which improve circulation.
Certain medications can cause bloating. They include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs—including painkillers such as celecoxib (Celebrex) and ibuprofen (Advil)—blood pressure meds, corticosteroids, certain antidepressants, certain diabetes medications, hormone replacement therapy and chemotherapy. What to do: Talk to your doctor about switching medications, or if that’s not possible, consider adding an additional medication to reduce swelling.
Congestive Heart Failure
The heart muscles can become too weak to pump blood around the body, causing it to pool in front of the heart, in the abdomen and in the extremities. This, combined with increased blood pressure, causes fluids to seep out into the surrounding tissue. What to do: Talk with your doctor about the swelling—you might be advised to cut down on salt, raise your legs, walk and wear compression socks/stockings. Patients with severe edema may need to have fluid drained with a needle.
A host of chronic illnesses can cause bloating and swelling. They include venous insufficiency (insufficient blood flow, sometimes caused by varicose veins), liver disease, kidney disease, emphysema, surgical removal of the lymph nodes (often to treat cancer) and others. If you have any of these illnesses, monitoring your swelling should be part of your ongoing treatment.
If you’re generally healthy, even eating a heap of salty chips won’t lead to swelling. That’s because the kidneys regulate sodium levels in the body, eliminating excess in the urine. But if your kidneys aren’t working well, or your heart isn’t pumping efficiently, sodium levels can build up in your blood, causing your blood vessels to retain more water—which can then leak out of blood vessels and bring on edema. What to do: If you have kidney disease or heart failure, follow your doctor’s orders on limiting sodium.