Edema refers to swelling that occurs when excess fluid becomes trapped between the tissues of our bodies’ organs, namely the skin. This fluid (known as interstitial fluid) is tightly regulated in the healthy body, and maintained under homeostasis. Edema results when the body is unable to regulate the amount of water in its cells, and water leaks into the interstitial spaces leading to fluid retention.

Edema Symptoms

Symptoms of edema depend on the underlying cause. For most conditions affecting the skin, symptoms include:

  • Swelling
  • Stretched, taught, or shiny appearance of the skin
  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Reduced sensation
  • Restricted movement of the affected area
  • Skin in which an indent can be left when pressure is applied

When edema affects other organs such as the lungs and heart, more serious symptoms occur. These symptoms often require immediate medical intervention, and include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Cough/ obstructed airway
  • Chest pain

Edema Causes

Edema is caused by a number of different pathological processes, and ranges in severity accordingly. It can occur alongside local inflammation, as with a pimple or bug bite, or it may affect the entire body as a result of an underlying disease process. Edema often occurs in the arms and legs, where gravity enables fluid to collect. This is called “peripheral edema.

  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Kidney disease
  • Chronic heart failure
  • Acute tissue injury
  • Allergic reaction
  • Infection
  • Pregnancy

Edema Diagnosis

A licensed medical professional can diagnose edema using a combination of visual and physical assessment. Visible swelling and obscured articulation of the limbs indicates abnormal fluid retention in these areas. Edema may be categorized as “pitting” when a doctor presses firmly on the area and an imprint is left, or “non-pitting” if no indent remains. With long-standing edema, dark red sores may appear.

Edema associated with chronic heart failure, kidney disease, or cirrhosis of the liver may require further diagnostic tests. These include blood tests and urinalysis, as well as chest x-rays and ultrasounds, which help to identify the edema’s underlying cause.

  • Visible swelling of the limbs
  • Abnormal fluid retention
  • Pitting
  • Blood, Urine tests
  • Chest X-Rays
  • Ultrasound

Edema Treatment

Mild forms of edema often resolve without treatment. For example, edema in pregnant women results from irregular weight distribution, and generally subsides after delivery of the child. Edema associated with acute inflammatory processes may be reduced with elevation and ice.

Systemic edema caused by underlying chronic pathology may require lifestyle modification or medication to rid the body of excess fluid.

  • Corticosteroids and antihistamines treat edema associated with allergic reactions, which often target the tongue and airway. These drugs reduce inflammation and irritability of the larynx and pharynx, enabling breathing.
  • Surgery is indicated when edema results from an obstruction in the circulatory or lymphatic systems, such as a tumor or blood clot. These blockages may cause a “dam” in the flow of fluid, and must be removed to restore normal flow.
  • Diuretics increase urinary output in individuals suffering from heart failure and liver disease. As water is expelled from the body, the excess fluid in the interstitial spaces is reabsorbed back into circulation.