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What is oedema and how does it form?

What is oedema and how does it form?

Oedema can affect any part of the body and is a painful, uncomfortable condition. Oedema is the medical term for localised swelling and can have several causes. Most times, sufferers have swelling of the extremities; hands, feet, ankles and so on. It can range from mild to absolutely debilitating. It is caused by water filling up a small area. 

Oedema happens because of a bad reaction to a specific medication, water retention in pregnancy or from a variety of underlying diseases, including congestive heart failure, kidney disease or cirrhosis of the liver, says Mayo Clinic.

There are many ways to treat oedema; these methods include medication and natural remedies, as well as permanent lifestyle changes.

Why does it occur?

Oedema can happen almost anywhere in the body to someone of any age, although it is more common later in life. When the small blood vessels leak fluid into the surrounding tissues, it causes painful swelling, owing to that extra fluid build-up.

Types of Oedema

There are different types of oedema, each with its own cause and best method of treatment. Below is a list of some of the types of oedema. 

Lymphoedema: This is usually oedema that is caused by radiation as a result of cancer treatment. The swelling in the arms and legs is usually caused by damage to your lymph nodes. The nodes are the tissues responsible for filtering the germs and waste from your body.  

Peripheral oedema: This type of oedema mostly affects the legs, feet and ankles. Some sufferers report swelling of the entire arm too. It could be a sign of problems with your circulatory system, lymph nodes or kidneys.

Pedal oedema: Pedal oedema is when fluid gathers in your feet and lower extremities. This usually occurs in pregnant women (see below) and the elderly. It inhibits movement and many sufferers lose sensation in the feet.

Pulmonary oedema: When fluid collects in the air sacs in your lungs, you have pulmonary oedema. That makes it hard for you to breathe and it’s worse when you lie down. You may have a fast heartbeat, feel suffocated and cough up foamy spittle, sometimes with blood. If it happens suddenly, call your doctor immediately. Having medical insurance like Affinity Health can save your life in these type of emergency situations. 

Cerebral oedema: This is a severe condition in which fluid builds up in the brain. It can happen if you hit your head hard o9r if a blood vessel gets blocked or bursts or you have a tumour or allergic reaction.

Macular oedema: This happens when fluid builds up in a part of your eye called the macula, which is in the centre of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. It happens when damaged blood vessels in the retina leak fluid into the area.

Medication for Oedema

The primary medication you will receive to treat oedema is a diuretic  to clear out the excess fluid. A diuretic assists the kidneys in flushing out water and toxins, so be prepared to run to the loo often. 

Taking medication to remove excess fluid, as well as reducing the amount of salt in your food often relieves oedema. However, bear in mind that even though this will alleviate oedema, if the swelling is a sign of an underlying disease, the disease itself requires different treatment. Increase your water intake. The more water you drink, the more fluid your body will release. Hydration is key. 

Pain medication is also prescribed. Swelling can be painful to the touch. 

Some unique socks and gloves can be prescribed to assist with swelling in the feet, called compression garments.


Pregnant women are worst affected by oedema, particularly in the last trimester. It is more challenging to get a handle on it when you are pregnant because many medications are not advised or safe for the fetus. 

Even though the swollen ankle and legs (and sometimes hands) are expected and normal in pregnancy, they can be painful. Also, excessive swelling in the earlier months of pregnancy could be a sign of eclampsia, a dangerous condition that can cause the death of the mom and baby. If you notice any excessive swelling, paired with headache, nausea and other concerning symptoms, call your doctor immediately, you may need emergency care. 

But why do pregnant women swell up? During pregnancy, there is extra fluid in the body, and the pressure from the growing uterus can cause swelling in the ankles and feet. The swelling tends to get worse as a woman’s due date nears, particularly near the end of the day and during hot weather, says Kid’s Health.

Ways to reduce swelling in pregnancy

When you get to the third trimester, no one will need to tell you to take it easy! Your body is exhausted, and pregnant women should avoid any strenuous activity. Your only job is to grow that baby (and eat whatever you like).  

Even though you may not be able to take diuretics,  drink loads of water and stay hydrated. It will help with passing the extra fluid (although, by the third trimester you will be running to the loo quite a bit anyway because of all the pressure the baby is putting on your bladder). 

Other tips are to stretch often, especially when sitting for long periods so that you get the circulation going in the affected areas. Lie on your left side when sleeping, and put maternity support stockings (that go to your waist) on before getting out of bed in the morning (these act the same way that the compression socks and garments do.

Swim or stand in a pool up to your neck and exercise regularly.

Try to stay cool in humid or hot weather.

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