Everyday health
21 Feb 2023

Fluid retention

1 mins to read
Oedema is the swelling that occurs when fluid accumulates in the tissues. It may be localised to a certain body part, or be generalised and affect the whole body.

  • Puffiness or swelling of the hands, feet, ankles, legs, or other body parts
  • Aching and stiffness of the affected area
  • Weight fluctuations with no apparent cause; weight may increase quickly over a short period of time
  • In some cases, pressing or pushing on the skin may cause the skin to become indented for a few seconds; this is referred to as pitting oedema
  • Fluid retention in the legs may be a symptom of varicose veins

Causes of fluid retention range from easily treated conditions through to serious and life-threatening diseases including kidney, liver or lung disease, heart failure and some forms of cancer . Consequently it is important that you consult your healthcare professional for a full check-up and diagnosis before commencing self-treatment.

Other causes may include:

  • Standing up for long periods of time (due to the effects of gravity on the fluids in the legs)
  • Circulatory issues, especially damage to the valves in the veins of the legs, which may allow blood to move against the normal direction of the bloodstream (i.e. away from the heart rather than towards it), and accumulate in the legs. This is known as chronic venous insufficiency, and may ultimately cause varicose veins.
  • Hormone fluctuations that occur prior to the menstrual period, during pregnancy, or when taking oral contraceptives
  • The use of certain medicines, including some blood pressure drugs, corticosteroids and anti-inflammatory medications
  • Hot weather
  • Burns (including sunburn)
  • Thyroid disease such as hypothyroidism (underactivity of the thyroid gland)
  • Allergies may also cause fluid retention. Note that sudden severe swelling may indicate a life-threatening form of allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Call for emergency help immediately

  • Work with your healthcare professional to identify and treat any underlying problems that are causing or contributing to your fluid retention.
  • Dietary intake of salt should be restricted as it may cause the body to retain water. At first you may find that food is not as tasty as you’re used to, but over a few weeks your taste buds will become accustomed to the reduced saltiness, and you will find yourself noticing and appreciating different tastes in your food. Don’t add salt to your cooking or at the table, and avoid smoked meats, processed foods, takeaway meals and packaged goods, all of which tend to be high in salt.
  • Ensure you eat a balanced diet that includes daily serves of lean protein, as well as an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
  • Don’t be tempted to reduce your fluid consumption – aim to drink at least two litres of water per day. Being dehydrated may actually increase the body’s tendency to retain fluid. For the same reason, avoid drinking diuretic beverages such as tea, coffee, and alcohol.
  • Many of the recommendations for the relief of varicose veins also apply to fluid retention in the legs. For example:
    • Lie with your feet elevated above your heart for 30 minutes as often as you can during the day.
    • Maintain a regular exercise regime. (Be sure to talk to your healthcare professional before starting any new exercise programme though).
    • Wearing compression stockings may be beneficial.

Many causes of fluid retention are simple and easy to treat, but others may be very serious. Consult your healthcare professional, who can determine the cause of the problem and arrange appropriate treatment.

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