Edema occurs when excess fluid collects in the tissues of the body. Most often this fluid moves to the lower half of the body, which causes the ankles, feet and legs to swell. You may also notice pitting in the skin, or indentions, when you wear tight socks or clothes. Edema can occur in other areas of the body, including the face, hands and abdomen.
Sometimes, swelling can be a sign of a serious underlying medical condition, like heart failure, liver failure and kidney disease. One of the most common conditions of swelling is chronic venous insufficiency or CVI. This occurs when the veins in the legs aren’t working as they should, which means blood doesn’t return to the heart efficiently. As a result, it makes it harder for the body to get rid of the excess fluid you take in.
Some of the most common signs you might have edema include skin that looks shiny and stretched and difficulty walking. In some cases, you may have trouble breathing if you have edema in the lungs.
Not all swelling in the body is edema. In some cases, swelling may be caused by fluid retention, an old injury, hives, a rash or even hormonal changes. Changes in medication may also cause certain body parts to swell. A diet that is rich in salt can cause swelling throughout different parts of the body. You may feel bloated and have a hard time buttoning your pants when you get dressed. Usually swelling from salt is most noticeable in the fingers and around the ankles.
There are many common reasons a senior might experience swelling. As we get older, it’s easy to be less active than we once were. Excessive sitting can cause low-grade inflammation and cause the body to hold in excessive fluid.
Many seniors have underlying health conditions and must take medications to alleviate the symptoms or as a form of treatment. Some medications can result in excessive swelling of the tissues, including calcium channel blockers, beta blockers, minoxidil, corticosteroids, estrogen, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
The good news is that most swelling is not dangerous and can be alleviated with a few lifestyle changes. However, it’s always important to check with your physician to rule out any serious causes before trying to fix the issue on your own.
Mild edema usually goes away by itself, especially after you’ve rested for the evening or placed the affected limb higher than your heart. There are also medications that can assist your body in getting rid of the excessive fluids. These drugs are called diuretics, and one of the most common ones is furosemide. Your doctor can determine if this type of medication is a good fit based on your current medical history.
Other ways to deal with mild swelling include:
• Movement. Choose light exercises that move the affected parts of your body. Taking care of yourself with physical exercise can help your body pump the fluid back to your heart so it can easily be expelled. Ask your doctor before starting any exercise program.
• Massage. Try applying pressure to the affected area and moving gently up the skin towards the hard. This can help the body move the excessive fluid out of the area and get it moving.
• Compression. For the legs, feet and ankles, choose a pair of compression socks that place a mild amount of pressure on the muscles and tissue to prevent water from collecting inside. Compression garments can be worn under other clothes until the swelling has subsided.
• Elevation. Several times a day, sit with the affected area above your heart. Gravity will help pull the fluid out of the area and get it circulating so it can be expelled easily.
Swelling is not often a cause for concern on its own, but there are cases where it is important to contact your doctor immediately. If you experience any of the following symptoms along with swelling in any part of the body, seek emergency medical attention.
• Chest pain
• Coughing blood
• Fainting or dizziness
• Trouble breathing
• Swelling that accompanies skin that is hot to the touch
• Leg swelling that occurs suddenly for no reason
• Swelling after a physical injury or a fall
• Leg swelling accompanying pale skin that is cool to the touch