Swelling of the legs, ankles and feet

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.

More serious causes include liver disease or kidney disease, which can cause low levels of albumin (a protein that helps keep fluid in the blood vessels), as well as heart failure, which puts pressure on the blood vessels.

Kidney disease can also decrease sodium and water excretion, resulting in fluid retention, as can medications that increase sodium retention, such as calcium channel blockers, antidepressants and steroids.

If swelling occurs in just one leg, problems with veins in that particular leg, such as 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 support hose. 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. Less frequent urination may be a sign of kidney disease and is also cause for concern, as is any evidence of liver disease.

Source: Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 29 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 03 Feb 2015