Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;71(11):2118

See related article on edema

What is edema?

Edema (say: eh-DEE-mah) is swelling or puffiness of parts of the body. Edema usually happens in the feet, ankles, and legs. It also can affect the face and hands. Pregnant women and elderly people often get edema, but it can happen to anyone.

What causes edema?

Edema happens when water gets trapped in the tissues in your body. Many things can cause this to happen. Sometimes gravity pulls water down into your legs and feet. Sitting in one place for too long can cause edema of the legs. Eating food with too much salt can make the problem worse.

Congestive heart failure and liver, kidney, and thyroid diseases can cause edema. You cannot catch edema from other people. It does not run in families.

How do I know if I have edema?

Your doctor can tell by examining you whether you have edema. The skin over the swollen area may be stretched and shiny. Pushing gently on the swollen area for about 15 seconds will leave a dimple. If this happens, your doctor might want to do tests to see what is causing the edema.

What can I do to treat my edema?

Edema cannot be “cured.” The only way to treat edema is to treat the condition that is causing it. But there are some things you can do to keep the swelling down. Put a pillow under your legs when you are lying down. Wear support stockings, which you can buy at most drugstores. Support stockings put pressure on your legs and keep water from collecting in your legs and ankles. Do not sit or stand for too long without moving. Follow your doctor’s orders about limiting how much salt you eat. Your doctor might want you to take a medicine called a diuretic (say: di-yoo-RET-tik, also called a water pill).

It is important to see your doctor if you have edema. If it is not treated, your skin may keep stretching, which can lead to other problems. If you are pregnant and you notice edema, see your doctor as soon as you can. See your doctor right away if you start to have trouble breathing.

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