Why Am I Retaining Water?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on January 26, 2022
4 min read

Your body is mostly water. It's in your blood, muscles, organs, and even your bones. You need it, but sometimes your body holds on to too much of it. This is water retention, and it causes puffiness and swelling. It can be triggered by many different things.

We all need sodium. It plays an important part in regulating blood pressure and fluid levels. But you only need a small amount. If you have too much in your system, your body holds in water. Table salt is one source of sodium, but we get more of it from processed food like lunch meat, crackers, chips, canned vegetables and soups, fast food, and even soft drinks.

Check the sodium levels of food and drinks before you buy them. You can help balance your sodium by eating potassium-rich foods like bananas and spinach, and drinking plenty of water.

Do you have swollen legs and ankles? Gravity keeps blood lower in your body. That increases the pressure inside the blood vessels in your legs and feet and causes fluid to leak into those tissues.

Sitting or standing too long can cause your tissue to hold water. If your job keeps you on your feet, you may notice swollen legs and ankles at the end of the day. It’s also common after a long time on an airplane.

The key is to keep blood circulating. If you stand or sit all day, it's important to take time to move around.

It’s normal for a woman to feel puffy or bloated in the days leading up to their period. It usually goes away after a few days. Hormones taken for birth control or hormone replacement therapy can also cause you to hold water.

Many medicines have water retention as a side effect. They include:

Ask your doctor if your meds may be the problem. If so, there may be something else you can take instead.

A weak heart doesn’t do a good job of pumping. That can cause you to retain water and lead to swelling in the legs and abdomen.

Other symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tired feeling
  • Shortness of breath

In extreme, heart failure can cause a dangerous buildup of fluid in the lungs called pulmonary edema. Signs of this include shortness of breath; rapid, shallow breathing; and coughing. This requires emergency treatment.

If the valves inside your veins don’t close the way they should, not all of your blood gets pumped back to your heart. This causes swelling in your lower legs.

Other symptoms include:

Water retention can also be caused other serious conditions:

Deep vein thrombosis: If you have swelling in just one foot or leg, it’s possible you have a blood clot. Other signs include pain, warmth, and redness. A clot can form while you’re healing from surgery or during a long flight. This can be very dangerous, and you need to see your doctor right away.

Preeclampsia: It’s normal for women to have swelling in their feet and legs toward the end of a pregnancy. But swelling in the hands and face could be a sign of a dangerous blood pressure problem called preeclampsia. Call your doctor if you have swelling along with headaches, blurred vision, or abdominal pain.

Other possible causes include:

Call your doctor. In some cases, swelling calls for immediate medical help. If it’s brought on by your menstrual cycle or a salty meal, it’ll go away on its own. If it’s a symptom of another medical condition, treating it should help.

Your doctor may also suggest you:

Try a low-salt diet: Don't get more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.

Take medication: Your doctor may prescribe a diuretic, or water pill. These help your body get rid of extra sodium and fluid through peeing.

Raise your feet: Lie down with your feet above the level of your heart several times a day to move fluid out of your feet and ankles.

Wear compression stockings: Special stockings or socks gently squeeze your lower legs to help keep your blood circulating.