Oedema is a build-up of fluid in the body which causes the affected tissue to become swollen. The swelling can occur in one particular part of the body or maybe more general, depending on the cause.  

Symptoms of oedema

The accumulation of fluid under the skin causes swelling, often in the lower legs and ankles (known as peripheral oedema). As well as swelling or puffiness of the skin, oedema can also cause:

  • skin discolouration
  • areas of skin that temporarily hold the imprint of your finger when pressed (known as pitting oedema)
  • aching, tender limbs
  • stiff joints
  • weight gain

Causes of oedema

It’s normal to have some swelling in your legs at the end of the day, particularly if you’ve been sitting or standing for long periods. Oedema is often a symptom of an underlying health condition. It can occur as a result of the following conditions or treatments:

  • pregnancy
  • kidney disease
  • heart failure
  • chronic lung disease
  • thyroid disease
  • liver disease
  • malnutrition
  • medication, such as corticosteroids or medicine for high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • the contraceptive pill

Immobility and standing for long periods are the 2 most common causes of oedema in the legs.

Other possible causes include:

  • a blood clot
  • severe varicose veins
  • a leg injury or leg surgery
  • burns to the skin

Treating oedema

Oedema is often temporary and clears up by itself. For example, if you’ve been standing up for too long on a hot day, your ankles may swell up until you get the chance to put your feet up and rest. If oedema doesn’t go away by itself, see your GP. They’ll try to find out if there’s an underlying cause that needs to be treated.

This could involve taking medication or following some advice, such as:

  • losing weight (if you’re overweight)
  • taking regular exercises, such as walking, swimming or cycling
  • raising your legs three to four times a day to improve your circulation
  • avoiding standing for long periods of time

If an underlying condition is causing the fluid imbalance, it should clear up after the condition has been diagnosed and treated.