Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Fluid retention can be seen as swelling.

Fluid retention can be seen as swelling.
beginning of content

Fluid retention

2-minute read

Fluid retention is seen as swelling in one or more parts of the body where fluid gets trapped. It is most common in the ankles and feet. If you have symptoms of fluid retention, it’s a good idea to see a doctor to check the cause and whether any treatment is needed. There are ways you can help yourself.

What is fluid retention?

Fluid retention is also called oedema (or edema in the US) or water retention. It occurs when parts of the body swell due to the build-up of trapped fluid.

You may have fluid retention if you have:

  • swelling or puffiness under the skin
  • skin that looks or feels tight or shiny
  • skin that indents when pressed, or does not bounce back after being pressed for a few seconds
  • discoloured skin
  • aching limbs or joints
  • weight gain
  • a noticeable increase in size of your abdomen

See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

If you have shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or chest pain, see your doctor immediately as these can be signs of pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs) which needs to be treated right away.

Fluid retention is usually seen as a sign of another problem. But it can also cause pain, damage to the skin and difficulty with walking.

What causes fluid retention?

Some people get fluid retention due to illnesses like:

Certain medications cause fluid retention, such as:

A problem in one part of your arm or leg can cause fluid retention further down your arm or leg, if you have:

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

You can also get fluid retention if you are pregnant, overweight or malnourished.

Fluid retention treatment

The treatment depends on the cause – talk to your doctor.

Many people will find their problem with fluid improves with more exercise, a healthy diet, less alcohol and less salt.

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

If the fluid is in just one part of the body, then you might get some relief from:

  • wearing compression stockings
  • massaging the tissue by stroking toward the heart
  • elevate the affected part above your heart when you can
  • exercises as advised by your doctor

Talk to your doctor about how much salt you eat, as salt can increase fluid retention.

Last reviewed: February 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Fluid retention (oedema)

Fluid regularly leaks into body tissues from the blood. The lymphatic system is a network of tubes throughout the body that drains this fluid (called lymph) from tissues and empties it back into the bloodstream. Fluid retention (oedema) occurs when the fluid isn’t removed from the tissues.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Pulmonary oedema information | myVMC

Pulmonary oedema refers to accumulation of fluid in the alveoli of the lungs, causing breathing problems. It is associated with heart failure.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Diabetes symptoms: Macular oedema information | myVMC

Macular oedema is a diabetic eye disease and a type of diabetic retinopathy cause by changes to the eye's blood vessels. It can cause blindness.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Angioedema symptoms, causes and treatment information | myVMC

Angioedema refers to rapid fluid accumulation causing swelling (oedema) of the skin and tissues. It can lead to airway obstruction and suffocation.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Drink water instead | Kidney Health Australia

To satisfy thirst, drink water The human body can last weeks without food but only days without fluid. Water is the recommended fluid to satisfy thirst and it is nature's choice. Choosing water as your preferred drink will have a positive imp

Read more on Kidney Health Australia website

Swelling during pregnancy

Swollen ankles and feet are very common during pregnancy. Find out how you can help relieve some of the discomfort and know whether any symptoms are serious.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Common discomforts during pregnancy

Your body has a great deal to do during pregnancy. Sometimes the changes taking place will cause irritation or discomfort, and on occasions they may seem quite alarming.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Pre-eclampsia

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that affects some pregnant women usually during the second half of pregnancy or immediately after delivery.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Nephrotic syndrome

Nephrotic syndrome is not a specific kidney disease; instead, it is a general term for a condition in which too much protein is lost in the urine.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Urine protein - Lab Tests Online AU

Why and when to get tested for urinary protein

Read more on Lab Tests Online website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo