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Swelling

Topic Overview

Swelling is an increase in the size or a change in the shape of an area of the body. Swelling can be caused by collection of body fluid, tissue growth, or abnormal movement or position of tissue.

Most people will have swelling at some time. When it is hot and you have stood or sat in the same position for a long time, you might notice swelling in your feet and ankles. Staying in one position for any length of time increases the risk that the lower legs, feet, or hands will swell because body fluid will normally move down a limb from the effects of gravity. Swelling can also be caused by heat-related problems, such as heat edema from working or being active in a hot environment.

Body fluid can collect in different tissue spaces of the body (localized) or can affect the whole body (generalized). Causes of localized swelling include:

  • Injury to a specific body area. Bruising (contusion) from an injury is caused by tears in the small blood vessels under the skin. Bleeding can also affect the joint (hemarthrosis) or the area that cushions and lubricates the joint (traumatic bursitis). Swelling can affect just one area or may involve large sections of the body, such as swelling that occurs following a motor vehicle accident.
  • Infection, which can occur in a joint or under the skin. An abscess is a pocket of pus that forms at the site of infected tissue. Cellulitis is a skin infection that can cause mild or severe swelling.
  • Burns, which can cause swelling at the site of the burn or in a larger area around the burn.
  • Inflammation that occurs when tissue is irritated by overuse or repeated motion.
    • Swelling of the tendon and swelling caused by a series of small tears around a tendon (tendinosis) can occur together or separately.
    • Swelling of the sac that cushions and lubricates the joint (bursitis) can be caused by prolonged or repeated pressure or by activities that require repeated twisting or rapid joint movements.
  • Insect bites or stings. Most insect bites or stings cause a small amount of redness or swelling. Some people have an allergic reaction to a bite or sting and develop a lot of swelling, redness, and itching.
  • Other causes, such as swelling related to a sac-like structure with clear fluid, blood, or pus (cyst) or a swollen organ, such as a salivary gland. For more information, see the topic Swollen Glands.

Causes of generalized swelling include:

Some people may experience swelling as a reaction to a medical treatment, procedure, or surgery. Swelling from a medical treatment may be related to the procedure or to a substance, such as dye, used during the procedure. Swelling may occur at an intravenous (IV) site used during a procedure or at an IV site used for medicines given at home. Some swelling at the site of surgery is normal, such as swelling of the arm after a mastectomy. Lymphedema is swelling that occurs in an area around lymph nodes that have been removed (such as following surgery) or injured (such as following radiation treatments).

Swelling can also be caused by the fluctuation of hormone levels within the body. Some women may notice swelling from retaining fluid during their menstrual cycles. Some women experience mild swelling in their hands or feet during pregnancy. Swelling in the feet may be more noticeable in the third trimester of the pregnancy. Generalized swelling can be a sign of a pregnancy-related problem called pre-eclampsia. For more information, see the topic Pregnancy-Related Problems.

Swelling can occur when tissues move out of their normal position, such as hernias in the abdomen. For more information, see the topic Inguinal Hernia.

Most of the time swelling is mild and goes away on its own. You may not even know what caused the swelling. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve mild symptoms.

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

Mild swelling will usually go away on its own. Home treatment may help relieve symptoms.

Swelling and pain are very common with injuries. When you have swelling, you should look for other symptoms of injury that may need to be evaluated by your doctor.

If you have a medical condition that may cause swelling, follow your doctor's instructions on how to treat your swelling.

Mild swelling

  • Rest and protect a sore area. Stop, change, or take a break from any activity that may be causing your pain or soreness.
  • Elevate the injured or sore area on pillows while applying ice and any time you are sitting or lying down. Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to help minimize swelling.
  • Avoid sitting or standing without moving for prolonged periods of time. Exercising the legs decreases the effect of gravity, so swelling goes down.
  • A low-sodium diet may help reduce swelling.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help prevent swelling caused by dehydration.
  • Keep your skin cool in hot environments.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a non-prescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child’s doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a non-prescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give ASA to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Swelling increases or spreads.
  • Other symptoms develop, such as pain, fever, trouble breathing, or decrease in urination.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

The following tips may help prevent swelling.

  • Do not sit with your feet hanging down for long periods of time. Elevate your feet whenever possible. If you take a car trip, stop and walk around every 1 to 2 hours. If you are travelling in an airplane, be sure to get up and walk around every 1 to 2 hours.
  • Limit the amount of salt in your diet.
  • Exercise regularly. Warm up and stretch before exercising.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, and keep your skin cool in hot environments.
  • Avoid repetitive motions, or take frequent breaks often to rest a body area.
  • Take medicines as instructed. If swelling occurs often, discuss with your doctor whether taking your medicine at another time of day would decrease the swelling.
  • Do not smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products. They increase circulation problems.

If you have a chronic medical condition or are pregnant, follow your doctor's instructions on how to prevent swelling and when to call to report your symptoms.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • How long have you had your symptoms?
  • What do you think is causing the swelling?
  • What specific body area is swollen?
  • Did the swelling begin suddenly, or did it develop gradually?
  • Is the swelling always present? Is it worse in the morning or the evening?
  • Have you had this problem before? If so, do you know what caused the problem at that time? How was it treated?
  • What activities make your symptoms better or worse?
    • Do you think that activities related to your job or hobbies caused your symptoms?
    • Do you do sports activities?
  • Have you recently moved from a different climate, such as from a colder climate to one with more heat or humidity?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • What prescription and non-prescription medicines do you take?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Other Places To Get Help

Organization

Canadian Dermatology Association
1385 Bank Street
Suite 425
Ottawa, ON  K1H 8N4
Phone: 1-800-267-3376
(613) 738-1748
Fax: (613) 738-4695
Email: contact.cda@dermatology.ca
Web Address: www.dermatology.ca
 

The Canadian Dermatology Association promotes research and education for dermatologists, provides information and support for dermatology patients, and offers public education materials on sun awareness and skin care.


Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised December 8, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.