Oedema is a build-up of fluid in the body's tissues that often causes swelling in the feet and ankles 

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Oedema is the medical term for fluid retention in the body.

The build-up of fluid causes affected tissue to become swollen. The swelling can occur in one particular part of the body – for example, as the result of an injury – or it can be more general.

This is usually the case with oedema that occurs as a result of certain health conditions, such as heart failure or kidney failure.

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 or weight loss
  • raised blood pressure and pulse rate

Types of oedema

Oedema can occur anywhere in the body, but it's most common in the feet and ankles. This is known as peripheral oedema.

Other types of oedema include:

  • cerebral oedema – affecting the brain
  • pulmonary oedema – affecting the lungs
  • macular oedema – affecting the eyes

Idiopathic oedema is a term used to describe cases of oedema where a cause can't be found.

What causes 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:

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

Other possible causes include:

Treating oedema

Oedema usually clears up by itself. However, your GP may suggest some self-help measures to reduce fluid retention, such as:

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


Lymphoedema is swelling in the legs caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system, or an inherited condition, such as Milroy's disease, that causes an abnormality of the lymph vessels.

The lymphatic system consists of a series of lymph nodes (glands) connected by a network of vessels, similar to blood vessels.

Fluid surrounding body tissues usually drains into nearby lymph vessels so it can be transported back into the blood. However, if the lymph vessels are blocked, the fluid can't be reabsorbed and will build up in the tissue.

Unlike oedema, lymphoedema is a long-term condition that can cause discomfort, pain and a loss of mobility.

It can't be cured, but it can be controlled using a number of treatments, including compression stockings, skin care, lymphatic massage and elevation.

Read more about lymphoedema.

Page last reviewed: 15/07/2014

Next review due: 15/07/2016


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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Ancientmariner said on 23 September 2014

A friend (male) is 76 years of age. His feet and legs are badly swollen. In the past he was a heavy drinker, mainly beer, so as an engineer I believe that the heavy drinking in the past has got something to do with it. Clearly the prognosis is not good but if a few more years could be obtained it would be great. I don't think that it is gout this time as the legs are also affected. Can anything be done?

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Johnno54 said on 12 March 2014

I had swelling above the ancles a few years ago and now have been diagnosed with coronary disease,there seems to be a link, after reading this article

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Seviyorumcok said on 31 May 2011

I cmpletely shattered my right heel back in 2003 when I had an accident and fell 30 feet, I had an operation and had screws placed into my foot, however the swelling at the beginning looked like at some points it was going to go down, but as the years have gone on the swelling in my ankle has got really bad! I have never had any time whereas I completely got rid of the swelling. The more I walk the worst the swelling gets. My foot is very painful in several areas in my right foot. The reason why I have come on this site today is because I have just slipped in my kitchen and the swelling is that bad it looks like it is going to pop as the swelling is so tight! Is this swelling called Oedema? I would appreciate your feedback, I am a 57 year old lady.- Thank you.

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Resmi said on 04 June 2010

My palms swell when i walk briskly for bout half an hour (during morning walk). Is this some kind of medical condition needing attention?

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