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Heart Failure Health Center

Edema Overview

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Edema is the medical term for swelling. It is a general response of the body to injury or inflammation. Edema can be isolated to a small area or affect the entire body. Medications, infections, pregnancy, and many medical problems can cause edema.

Edema results whenever small blood vessels become "leaky" and release fluid into nearby tissues. The extra fluid accumulates, causing the tissue to swell.

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Causes of Edema

Edema is a normal response of the body to inflammation or injury. For example, a twisted ankle, a bee sting, or a skin infection will all result in edema in the involved area. In some cases, such as in an infection, this may be beneficial. Increased fluid from the blood vessels allows more infection-fighting white blood cells to enter the affected area.

Edema can also result from medical conditions or problems in the balance of substances normally present in blood. Some of the causes of edema include:

Low albumin (hypoalbuminemia): Albumin and other proteins in the blood act like sponges to keep fluid in the blood vessels. Low albumin may contribute to edema, but isn't usually the sole cause.

Allergic reactions: Edema is a usual component of most allergic reactions. In response to the allergic exposure, the body allows nearby blood vessels to leak fluid into the affected area.

Obstruction of flow: If the drainage of fluid from a body part is blocked, fluid can back up. A blood clot in the deep veins of the leg can result in leg edema. A tumor blocking lymph or blood flow will cause edema in the affected area.

Critical illness: Burns, life-threatening infections, or other critical illnesses can cause a whole-body reaction that allows fluid to leak into tissues almost everywhere. Widespread edema throughout the body can result.

Edema and heart disease (congestive heart failure): When the heart weakens and pumps blood less effectively, fluid can slowly build up, creating leg edema. If fluid buildup occurs rapidly, fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) can develop.

Edema and liver disease: Severe liver disease (cirrhosis) results in an increase in fluid retention. Cirrhosis also leads to low levels of albumin and other proteins in the blood. Fluid leaks into the abdomen (called ascites), and can also produce leg edema.

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