Oedema, also known as dropsy, is a fluid build-up in the body's tissues that often causes swelling in the feet and ankles 

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Oedema, also known as dropsy, 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, where it 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 where doctors are unable to find a cause.

What causes oedema?

Oedema is often a symptom of an underlying health condition. It can occur as a result of the following conditions or treatments:

Oedema that occurs in the leg may be caused by:

Oedema can also sometimes occur as a result of:

  • being immobile for long periods
  • hot weather
  • exposure to high altitudes
  • burns to the skin


Lymphoedema is a common cause of fluid build-up in the body's tissues. It occurs when the lymphatic system is damaged or disrupted.

The lymphatic system is a series of glands (lymph nodes) around the body 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 away and back into the blood.

However, if the lymphatic vessels are blocked, excess fluid cannot be re-absorbed and will build up in tissue.

Read more about lymphoedema.

Treating oedema

Oedema usually clears up when the underlying condition causing the fluid imbalance is diagnosed and treated.


Your GP may recommend some things you can do yourself to reduce fluid retention, including:


Diuretics are a type of medication that may also be prescribed to help reduce fluid build-up. They work by increasing the amount of urine you produce.

Not everyone can use diuretics and in some cases they can make things worse. They are mainly used to treat people who develop oedema as a result of heart failure.

Page last reviewed: 16/04/2012

Next review due: 16/04/2014


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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

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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