Oedema is a build-up of fluid in the body which causes the affected tissue to become swollen. The swelling can occur in one particular part of the body or may be more general, depending on the cause. You should see your GP If an oedema doesn’t clear by itself.
Symptoms of oedema
The build-up of fluid under the skin causes swelling. This is often in the lower legs and ankles
As well as swelling or puffiness of the skin, if you have oedema, you may also experience other symptoms including:
- skin discolouration
- areas of skin that temporarily hold the imprint of your finger when pressed (pitting oedema)
- aching, tender limbs
- stiff joints
- weight gain
Causes of oedema
It's not a sign of illness to have some swelling in your legs at the end of the day. This is particularly if you've been sitting or standing for long periods.
Mild oedema is common in pregnancy, and not usually a cause for concern. Oedema can be a symptom of an underlying health condition, particularly if it is persistent, or there are other significant symptoms (such as shortness of breath).
It can occur as a result of the following conditions or treatments:
- kidney disease
- heart failure
- chronic lung disease
- thyroid disease
- liver disease
- medication, such as corticosteroids or medicine for high blood pressure (hypertension)
- the contraceptive pill
Immobility or standing for long periods is the most common cause of oedema in the legs.
Other possible causes include:
When to see your GP
Oedema is often temporary and clears up by itself. For example, if you've been standing up for too long on a hot day, your ankles may swell up.
If it doesn't go away by itself, see your GP. They'll try to find out if there's an underlying cause that needs to be treated. If you have other significant symptoms such as shortness of breath, speak to your GP or GP OOH (if your GP is not available) for advice without waiting for it to clear up.
Treating your oedema may involve taking medication or following some advice, such as:
- losing weight (if you're overweight)
- taking regular exercise, such as walking, swimming or cycling
- raising your legs three to four times a day to improve your circulation
- avoiding standing for long periods of time
If an underlying condition is causing the fluid imbalance, it should clear up after the condition has been diagnosed and treated.
Lymphoedema is swelling in the legs caused by:
- a blockage in the lymphatic system
- an inherited condition
The lymphatic system consists of a series of lymph nodes (glands) connected by a network of vessels (lymphatics), similar to blood vessels.
Fluid surrounding body tissues usually drains into nearby lymph vessels so it can be transported back into the blood.
If the lymph vessels are blocked, the fluid can't be reabsorbed and will build up in the tissue.
Unlike oedema, lymphoedema is a long-term condition that can cause:
- a loss of mobility
It can't be cured, but it can be controlled using a number of treatments, including:
- compression stockings
- skin care
- lymphatic massage
Other types of oedema
Other types of oedema include:
- cerebral oedema – a build-up of fluid that affects the brain
- pulmonary oedema – a build-up of fluid that affects the lungs causing shortness of breath - can be caused by a range of conditions including heart problems, lung infections, COPD, kidney failure
- macular oedema – a build-up of fluid that affects the eyes
These types of oedema have their own specific treatments. Idiopathic oedema is a term used to describe cases of oedema where a cause can't be found.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.