Why Am I So Swollen? Water Retention Explained

Have your feet ever get swollen on an airplane? Have you heard about diets that help you shed ‘water weight’? Though our body is 70% water, the accumulation of water in tissues can have nasty consequences. Let’s explore how and why it happens.

Image Credit: saje via / Getty Images

Introduction to edema

Fluid retention, or edema, is the accumulation of water in various body tissues. Where does that water come from? It turns out that our blood vessels are full of so-called interstitial fluid, which leeks through their walls, bringing nutrients to all cells in the body. The fluid can accumulate in body tissues for three main reasons:

  • blood vessel walls become too leaky;
  • the heart doesn’t pump blood strong enough;
  • inflammation – special chemicals called histamines are released, making more fluid flow towards the damaged tissue, bringing white blood cells that fight the “enemy”;

Liquid usually accumulates in feet and legs, hands, belly, face, and – the most dangerous – in lungs.

A very common issue

Edema is much more common than you think and occurs in many situations:

  • Pregnancy (uterus exerts too much pressure on pelvic arteries);
  • Sitting or standing in the same pose for a long time;
  • Flying in a plane;
  • Too much salt in the diet;
  • Protein deficiency (have you seen photos of hungry African children with bloated bellies? That’s the reason)
  • Travelling to high altitudes;
  • Injury, allergy, and insect bites;
  • Eating too much carbs.

Getting rid of the swelling

Diuretics are usually prescribed to make more urine and shed excess water; apart from diuretic drugs, one can try plants and foods that have the same effect – hibiscus, ginger, parsley, nigella, and others.

If your limbs are swollen, hold them higher than your head level several times a day for a few minutes. Rotate your ankles and wrists and walk around if swelling develops during a flight or because you sit in the same pose for too long. Finally, massage and compression stockings or sleeves can be of great help.

Exercise is a great way to reduce water retention. When liquid accumulates in the abdomen, it makes one look bloated and much more overweight than the person actually is. A low-carb diet helps shed “water weight” very quickly, but this effect is temporary. A better remedy is reducing the amount of salt you eat.

Caution – danger!

In two particular cases, water retention can be dangerous and even lethal.

Pulmonary edema is the accumulation of liquid in the lungs. It is characterized by shortness of breath, the feeling of suffocating, and a nasty cough. The condition can be caused by heart disease, lung injuries, viral infections, or altitude sickness .

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – when a blood clot forms in a vein deep inside a leg, it usually causes swelling and pain just in that leg (more on DVT mechanics here). When a clot breaks off and travels up the vein, it can block vital blood vessels, which can lead to death. If one of your legs gets swollen, seek medical help immediately!

We have seen that liquid retention is a very common problem, affecting very different categories of population. While in most cases edema is not dangerous, it can be a great nuisance; we hope that our tips will help you recognize and treat it in a timely manner.

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