Q: My doctor told me the swelling in my ankles was edema. What causes edema? Can I prevent it?
A: Edema refers to the buildup of fluid outside the circulatory system. Swelling results when gravity causes this extra fluid to settle in the feet, ankles, and legs. Being overweight and sitting or standing for more than an hour or two can cause edema, as can having varicose veins and consuming too much salt. More serious causes include liver disease, kidney disease, and heart failure.
In addition, some medications cause sodium and water retention, such as calcium channel blockers, some antidepressants, and corticosteroids.
If swelling occurs in just one leg, problems with veins in that particular leg, such as a blood clot or varicose veins, may be to blame. Treatment of the underlying medical condition is important and will help prevent edema. A diuretic may also help by increasing sodium excretion.
To relieve or limit swelling, elevate your legs above your heart for 10 to 15 minutes several times a day. You can also try compression stockings. Also remember to stand and walk around at least every hour or so, even if you’re traveling in a car or on a plane. Finally, try cutting down on your salt intake.
Contact your doctor immediately if swelling is accompanied by fever or if your swollen foot or leg is red or warm. Jaundice or a swollen abdomen may be a sign of liver disease and is also cause for concern.
This article first appeared in UC Berkeley Health After 50.
Also see Tips to Reduce Sodium.