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Swelling (first aid)

Swelling is a build-up of fluid in the tissues which may be caused by injuries such as sprains and strains, allergic reactions, side effects of medication, insect bites and stings, infection as well as conditions such heart, liver or kidney failure. It can be generalised, affecting different parts of the body, or localised to one area of the body.

Depending on where the swelling is and its possible cause, first aid should be initiated to limit and reduce the swelling.

First aid for swelling

If you have swelling due to a minor injury, you should be able to manage it at home following the first aid self-help techniques known under the PRICE acronym:

  • Protection - protect from other possible injuries by using a support or other measures
  • Rest - to reduce the swelling, do not walk or bear weight on the injured limb, avoid activities involving the injured area for the initial 24 to 72 hours after injury
  • Ice - ice packs should be applied during the first 72 hours. The pack should be wrapped in a towel and applied for 20 minutes to reduce the swelling and the pain and to control the bleeding. It could be reapplied after a 20 minutes break if necessary.
  • Compression-apply a compression bandage to support and control the swelling. Remember to remove the bandage before going to sleep.
  • Elevation - of the affected limb to reduce the swelling, bleeding and pain

These measures should help relieve the pain and swelling. Painkillers can be used if necessary.

You should avoid HARM in the first 72 hours after the injury:

  • Heat - for example, heat packs, hot baths or saunas
  • Alcohol - increases the bleeding and swelling and can delay the healing process
  • Running - and other exercise may inflict further damage
  • Massage - increases the bleeding and swelling


When to seek help

You should seek medical advice if:

  • The swelling doesn’t go down after you have followed the PRICE advice and avoided HARM in the first 72 hours after an injury such as a sprain or strain.
  • You have a painful swollen leg, with low level fever, or change of skin colour in the affected leg as this might be a sign of a blood clot or infection. Seek urgent medical advice.
  • If you are in pain or discomfort. If you have chest pain or shortness of breath you should seek urgent medical advice
  • If you have diabetic neuropathy and a swollen foot and you think the swelling has become infected or you are concerned Seek urgent medical advice.
  • If you believe that the swelling was caused by your current medication whether prescribed or over the counter or by dietary supplements.
  • If you have difficulties in passing urine.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on January 16, 2017

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