In years gone by, when someone's lower legs, ankles and feet were swollen, people called it "dropsy." Today, however, we call it edema. It's important to note that edema isn't a disease but the symptom of an underlying condition, like fluid overload or heart failure (in which the heart is not pumping well enough to meet the body's demand for oxygen).
Edema usually begins with leakage of fluid from the tiniest blood vessels into nearby tissues. When the body senses that fluid is being lost from these vessels, it signals the kidneys to hold on to more fluid, increasing the volume of fluid in the vessels and leading to additional leakage.
Edema can occur if you sit or stand in one place for too long, as gravity pulls water down into your legs and feet. The veins in your legs have small valves that help keep blood from running down toward your feet between heartbeats. If these valves are not functioning properly, edema can develop in the legs. Pregnant women sometimes get edema, and people who eat a diet too high in sodium (salt) can also develop it. Certain conditions, such as kidney or liver disease, can also cause edema or make it worse
Signs that you might have edema include:
- Stretched and shiny-looking skin over a swollen area
- Increased abdomen size (ascites)
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing (pulmonary edema)
- Tightness of jewelry, clothing or accessories
- Low output of urine, even when you're drinking as much fluid as normal
- A dimple in the skin covering the swollen area that remains for a few seconds after a pressing finger has been released
Symptoms of more serious edema (such as pulmonary edema) include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Shortness of breath when lying down
- Cold hands or feet
On the next page we'll find out about treatments for fluid overload and edema.