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Fluid retention can be seen as swelling.

Fluid retention can be seen as swelling.
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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 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 a sign of another problem. 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.

How is fluid retention treated?

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

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

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

Last reviewed: April 2020

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