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Fluid retention can be seen as swelling.

Fluid retention can be seen as swelling.
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Fluid retention

5-minute read

What is fluid retention?

Fluid retention is also called oedema or water retention. It occurs when parts of the body swell due to a build-up of trapped fluid. The fluid gets trapped and makes the area swollen or puffy. Fluid retention is most common in your ankles and feet.

What are the symptoms of fluid retention?

Signs of fluid retention can be:

  • swelling or puffiness under the skin
  • skin that looks or feels tight or shiny
  • skin that does not bounce back if you press it for a few seconds
  • skin that is not the normal colour
  • limbs or joints that ache
  • putting on weight
  • an increase in size of your tummy area

See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

Fluid retention can cause pain where the swelling is happening. It can also cause damage to your skin. You may have trouble walking. Fluid retention is usually a sign that you have another health issue.

Sometimes fluid retention can happen in the lungs. This is called pulmonary oedema. It can cause shortness of breath or chest pain. You should see your doctor as soon as possible if this happens. Treatment is needed straight away.

If you suspect that you or someone else has pulmonary oedema, go to your nearest hospital or call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.

What causes fluid retention?

There are many causes of fluid retention. Some people get fluid retention due to being sick from:

Some medicines can cause fluid retention, such as:

You can get fluid retention if you are overweight or do not have enough of the right foods. Pregnant people also sometimes have fluid retention.

Sometimes health issues that happen in one part of your body can cause fluid retention in another area. A problem in one part of your arm or leg can cause fluid retention further down your arm or leg. This can happen if you have:

  • a problem with your lymphatic system, which drains fluid from tissues
  • a vein condition, such as deep vein thrombosis
  • a build-up of fat, usually in the legs
  • a burn or other type of injury

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor if you have symptoms of fluid retention. Your doctor can do tests to find the cause. You may need some medicine or a different treatment. You may need to change your diet or do exercises.

How is fluid retention treated?

Treatment of fluid retention depends on its cause. Once the doctor has found out the cause you will be told what treatment is needed.

Many people will find their problem with fluid gets better if they do more exercise. Other people might feel better if they have a healthy diet. Drinking less alcohol and having less salt in your diet can also help.

Salt in your diet can increase your fluid retention. Talk to your doctor about how much salt you eat.

Some people need medicines called diuretics. These medicines help their body get rid of excess fluid via your urine (pee). Some people need to change the medicines they are taking after talking to their doctor.

If the fluid is only in one part of your body, you can feel more comfortable if you:

  • raise the swollen part above your heart when you can
  • massage the swollen area in the direction of your heart
  • do exercises as advised by your doctor

Your doctor may recommend that you wear compression clothes, such as socks.

Resources and support

If you want to know more about fluid retention, talk to your doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak to, 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2022

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