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What is oedema?

Oedema is swelling, often in the legs and feet, due to a build-up of fluid under the skin in the spaces between body tissues. In the past it was called dropsy or hydropsy.

Oedema not only causes puffiness it can also lead to aching limbs, stiff joints, skin discolouration and weight gain.

Different types of oedema

Often the swelling is in one particular part of the body.

Peripheral oedema. This is the most common type and occurs in the feet, legs and ankles.

Pulmonary oedema. An accumulation of fluid in the air spaces ( alveoli) in the lungs.

Cerebral odema. This affects the brain.

Macular oedema. This affects the eyes.

Anasarca. This is oedema in all the tissues and cavities of the body at the same time.

Causes of oedema

Causes of oedema include:

Illness - The most common diseases associated with oedema involve the heart, liver and kidneys. In these cases, oedema usually occurs because of the body's retention of too much salt. The excess salt causes the body to retain water which results in swelling.

Varicose veins and thrombophlebitis can also lead to oedema. This has nothing to do with salt but is down to inadequate pumping of the blood through the veins, also known as venous insufficiency. This can cause fluid to accumulate in the extremities, especially the legs, ankles and feet.

Oedema can also be caused by long-term lung disease and thyroid disease and can be related to advanced cancer.

Idiopathic oedema is a term used to describe cases of oedema where a cause can't be found and occurs most often in women.

Pitting and non-pitting oedema

Pitting oedema is the most common form of oedema. If you briefly apply pressure to the swollen area by pressing on the skin with a finger and the pressure leaves an indentation that lasts for some time afterwards that is referred to as pitting oedema.

In non-pitting oedema, pressing on the swollen skin with a finger does not leave a persistent indentation. Non-pitting oedema usually affects the legs or arms. It can occur in patients with lymphoedema or in some patients with hyperthyroidism. Non-pitting oedema of the legs is difficult to treat. Diuretic drugs (sometimes called water pills) are not usually effective, although elevating the legs periodically during the day and compression stockings may reduce the swelling.

Treatment for oedema

Sometimes 'treatment' is as simple as taking the weight off your feet, putting your legs up and resting, especially if the weather is warm. It may also help to reduce salt intake. Regular exercise to improve circulation and losing weight can help oedema along with compression stockings and lymphatic massage.

Seek medical advice if your symptoms don't go away. If there is an underlying reason for your oedema you may be prescribed medication to help treat the condition. This can include diuretics to flush excess water and salt from the body.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on December 02, 2016

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