Edema is a medical word for swelling, which is an excess of watery fluid that collects in the cavities or in tissues between the body’s cells (called interstitium). It is often caused by injury or inflammation but can also be caused by pregnancy, infections, certain medications and underlying medical problems.
Resulting from small blood vessels releasing fluid into nearby tissue, edema is most common in the feet, ankles, legs, hands and arms. The swelling is sometimes coupled with stretched or shiny skin as well as increased abdominal size (ascites).
Edema is usually harmless and can be reduced with rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medications. However, if you experience shortness of breath, chest pain or difficulty breathing, you should seek immediate medical attention. As spelled out by medical sites like WebMD, MedlinePlus and MedicineNet, these are symptoms of pulmonary edema, which can be life threatening.
If you develop pain and/or swelling in a limb after sitting or laying for extreme periods of time (on an airplane, for example) you should call your doctor. You may have developed a blood clot called deep vein thrombosis.
Mild cases of edema are usually caused by injuries, eating too much salty foot, sitting or staying in one position for too long, allergic reactions and pregnancy. Sometimes edema is a symptom of pre-menstruation. The swelling could also be caused by certain medications, including estrogen, high blood pressure medications, steroid drugs and certain diabetes medication called thiazolidinediones.
Swelling that happens after an injury or due to an infection may actually be beneficial, as the increased fluid from the blood vessels helps more infection-fighting white blood cells to move into the affected area.
While most cases of edema are mild, some are caused by serious underlying medical conditions. Some of the most common ailments that can cause edema are congestive heart failure, hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, kidney disease, kidney damage, a damaged or inadequate lymphatic system and weakness or damage to the veins in your legs. If edema is caused by heart disease, for example, a person may experience swelling that adds an extra five to 10 pounds to each leg.
Treatment of edema usually means treating whatever caused the swelling in the first place. This includes reducing the amount of salt in your food, taking diuretics, and/or taking anti-inflammatory medications or antihistamines (in the case of bug bites, allergic reactions and injuries). However, if the swelling is caused by an underlying medical condition (such as congestive heart failure, cardiomyopathy, kidney disease or cirrhosis of the liver), then that condition must be treated separately.
If edema is left untreated, it can cause decreased blood circulation, increasingly painful swelling, scarring between tissue layers, stretched and itchy skin, difficulty walking and elasticity problems in the veins, arteries, joints and muscles.