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Edema, once called “Dropsy”, is a condition that causes swelling in certain areas of the body.  It often emerges as a result of leaking capillaries which seep fluid into the surrounding tissues, producing the swelling.  It might not seem like a reason to seek medical help, however with older individuals particularly those with chronic medical conditions the situation could be serious.

Edema is often misunderstood, but it can be minor or severe and is usually caused by an underlying condition such as kidney damage, liver disease, lung disease, heart failure or even arthritis.  The condition occurs when excess fluid leaks out of small blood vessels and gets trapped in surrounding tissues following an injury, surgical procedure or change in the body’s chemical composition.

Who Gets Edema?

Given their typical lifestyles and medical needs, seniors are generally at a higher risk of edema.  Lower activity levels, chronic health conditions and taking additional medications are factors that make seniors a more likely target.  Understanding the general symptoms and causes of edema allow family caregivers to prevent the development of serious complications.

What are the Symptoms?

The most obvious symptom is swelling or puffiness of the skin. Sometimes the skin can appear stretched, shiny or discolored.  One test is to compress the skin with a finger and look for a dimple.  This is called “pitting edema”. Sometimes aching body parts or stiff joints accompany a diagnosis of edema.

What Causes Edema?

Edema can result from a lack of physical activity, sitting or standing for too long or an unhealthy diet. It can also be hereditary, the result of surgery, high altitudes, too warm living conditions, menopause, high blood pressure or excessive salt intake. Edema is also a common symptom of heart disease, liver damage and kidney disease. Sometimes medications contribute, too, such as calcium channel blockers, NSAIDs (ibuprofen, Aspirin, Naproxen,), corticosteroids, and some anti-diabetic drugs.

How is Edema Treated?

Minimizing swelling and the complications thereof by managing chronic conditions like heart disease and kidney disease is of primary concern.  In some cases, a diuretic like Lasix (furosemide) is prescribed to stimulate the removal of excess fluid through urination.

How can Edema be Managed at Home?

There are a few lifestyle adjustments that can be very beneficial for a patient who is prone to edema:

  • Low-Sodium Meals. A low-sodium diet is important for maintaining cardiovascular health and minimizing water retention as well. Encourage your loved one to use fresh herbs, citrus, and other sodium-free condiments and seasonings on their food to add flavor instead of reaching for the saltshaker.  While the body needs salt to function properly, a physician or dietician can help you and your loved one devise a balanced and nutritious low-sodium diet that will combat swelling.
  • Compression Therapy. If your loved one has a specific limb or area that is affected by edema, it could be beneficial for them to wear a compression stocking, sleeve or glove. Placing added pressure on the area during the day can prevent fluid from collecting there. These products come in a range of compression levels and it is important to work with a physician to make sure the product fits properly and provides the right amount of pressure.
  • Elevation. Resting with the affected limb(s) above the heart can help prevent pooling and improve circulation. Depending on the part of the body that needs to be elevated, there are countless products, such as pillows, slings and wedges, that can help support proper positioning and offer comfort.
  • Physical Movement. Using body parts affected by edema is often difficult, but it may help reduce swelling and eliminate excess fluid. Even the smallest movements and mildest exercise regimen can help get blood and lymph circulating and strengthen the cardiovascular system.
  • Limit Fluid Intake. Given the emphasis on hydration, this may seem counterintuitive, but for someone with a chronic health condition that causes edema, less may be better. It is best to consult with the patient’s doctor to determine whether specific daily liquid limits may be appropriate.

While edema can be serious, by understanding the underlying causes and symptoms and seeking appropriate professional medical help, great progress to relieving the symptoms can be accomplished.  A few lifestyle changes and physical regimens will allow your loved one to be safe and comfortable at home.