What Is Anasarca?

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 30, 2023
4 min read

Anasarca is a medical condition that leads to general swelling of the whole body. It happens when your body tissues retain too much fluid due to several reasons. It differs from other types of edema that affect one or two parts of the body. The condition is also known as extreme generalized edema or massive edema. When it happens, it’s usually as a result of a severe underlying condition or organ damage.

Anasarca is not a disease in itself but a symptom of an underlying condition. It differs from typical edema, and when it happens, your whole body will be affected. Under normal circumstances, when any part of the body swells, it's usually due to eating too much salty food, injury, or a minor side effect of medication. This typical kind of swelling affects the feet, hands, or legs. With anasarca, the edema is so bad that it may inhibit movement.

Anasarca is usually a result of abnormalities in blood vessels, blockage in the lymphatic vessels, and water retention in the whole body. The condition happens due to several reasons. Here are some of the most common.

  • Kidney disease. When your kidneys no longer function as they should, they can’t remove fluids from the body adequately. This retention of fluid causes anasarca.
  • Liver cirrhosis. Cirrhosis happens when your liver fails to function. Liver disease causes changes in hormones that, in turn, affect the regulation of fluids in the body. Liver failure is responsible for fluid leakage into the tissues.
  • Malnutrition. Protein deficiency in your diet can lead to fluid accumulation in the tissues. When the deficiency is extreme, it can lead to anasarca.
  • Allergic reaction. Your whole body might retain fluid because of an allergic reaction. When the reaction is severe, anasarca can develop.
  • Capillary leak syndrome. This is a less common cause of anasarca. It happens when protein and fluid leak out of the blood vessels into the body tissues. Research on why this happens is still very scarce, but scientists believe it’s because of inflammation and injury to blood vessels. They've found that this happens due to some medications and toxins. One case study shows that capillary leak syndrome can also happen because of certain cancer medications like gemcitabine. In another study, anasarca happened because of a snakebite.
  • Excessive administration of intravenous fluids. Hospitals will often administer intravenous fluids to treat various conditions, including infection, dehydration, and shock. If your body is unable to adapt to these fluids, you may develop severe edema.
  • Side Effect of Medication. Various medications, including specific cancer treatments, can cause anasarca. The other common types that might cause the condition include blood pressure drugs like amlodipine. Steroid medications are also responsible for the condition. Discontinuing such drugs will often resolve anasarca symptoms.

The first symptom of anasarca is a swollen body, from your head to your toes. You may also experience:

  • Dimples on the skin after you press a finger onto it for several seconds
  • High or low blood pressure
  • A slow or fast heart rate
  • Organ system failure, especially the kidneys and liver

In extreme cases of anasarca, you will experience a lot of discomfort. You may also become immobile, unable to move your limbs or walk. The swelling on your face may also impair vision because it makes it hard to open your eyes.

Severe cases of anasarca can be an emergency. If, in addition to the above symptoms, you experience chest pain, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical treatment. These could be signs of pulmonary edema, which causes a buildup of fluid in the lungs. This condition is life-threatening.

If you develop symptoms of anasarca, see your doctor immediately for diagnosis and treatment. A physical examination and assessment of your medical history will be necessary for the diagnosis. Your doctor may also run various other tests to determine the underlying condition causing the anasarca, including:

  • A series of blood tests to check your liver, heart, and kidney functions, as well as your hemoglobin levels
  • A CT scan to check the chest cavity
  • A heart ultrasound or echocardiogram to establish any anomalies in the anatomy and function of the heart
  • A stress test to monitor the heart function
  • Allergy tests

For your doctor to give you the correct treatment, they must identify the underlying condition and treat it. Severe cases of anasarca require diuretics that help the body expel the excess fluid in the urine. One diuretic that's commonly prescribed is furosemide.

In addition to medications, these home-care tips can also help in treating anasarca:

  • Limit salt intake to reduce the swelling associated with anasarca.
  • Gently massage your body in the direction of the heart.
  • Exercise to pump out excess fluid, back to the heart. Talk to your doctor first if you have a heart problem.
  • Increase your protein and fiber intake.