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Edema refers to swelling caused by an extra buildup of fluid in your body’s tissues. Most often, it affects the feet, ankles, legs arms, hands and face, but it can affect any part of the body.

Depending on how much swelling there is and where it occurs, edema can cause problems ranging from pain to difficulty breathing to skin ulcers. Edema in the brain can lead to both short-term and long-term issues, such as headache, memory loss, seizures and impaired speech.

These are some common reasons people experience edema:

  • Pregnancy
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney disease or damage
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Chronic venous insufficiency (weak or damaged veins in your legs)
  • Deep vein thrombosis (clots in the leg or legs)
  • Lymph node problems
  • Traumatic injuries, such as a sprain or blow to the head
  • Allergic reactions, such as to foods or bee stings
  • Brain infections, including meningitis and encephalitis, or brain tumors
  • Certain medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, naproxen), corticosteroids, calcium channel blockers and some diabetes drugs 
  • Eating too much salt
  • Standing or sitting too long, especially in hot weather

When should I get help for edema?

See your doctor if you have edema, especially if you are pregnant. Many women experience mild swelling during pregnancy, but more severe edema can be a sign of serious pregnancy-related complications, including deep vein thrombosis and preeclampsia.

Get medical attention right away in the following instances:

  • You have edema accompanied by shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or chest pain
  • You experience headache, confusion or loss of consciousness, as these can be signs of swelling in the brain

Mild edema often goes away on its own. Severe edema, if left untreated, can cause a variety of problems, from pain and stiffness to an increased risk of infection and skin ulcers.

Care for edema at Rush

Your doctor will ask you questions and do a physical exam to figure out what is causing the edema.

To help relieve your edema, your doctor may have you do one or more of the following:

  • Keep the affected limb elevated (so it’s higher than your heart) for at least 30 minutes three or four times a day — and possibly while you are sleeping
  • Limit your salt intake
  • Do exercises to help reduce swelling
  • Wear compression socks, sleeves or gloves, which put pressure on the limbs to keep fluid from building up
  • Take diuretics (also called “water pills”) to help your body get rid of extra fluid (these are usually used for more severe cases of edema)

If your edema is caused by a disease, such as heart failure, cirrhosis or allergies, you will need to see a specialist who can treat the underlying disease. If you don’t already have one, your doctor will refer you to the appropriate specialist at Rush for care.

Why choose Rush for edema care

  • If you have edema due to a disease or injury, specialists at Rush have the expertise to help address the underlying cause and relieve your edema. Many specialty programs at Rush are consistently ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

Departments and programs that treat this condition