A person might experience swollen feet for a number of reasons. Some causes, such as minor injury, are apparent and easy to treat. Others, however, may be signs of a serious underlying health condition that needs prompt medical attention.
Here, we take a look at some of the reasons why a person's feet may appear swollen, when they should talk to a doctor, and what the treatment might involve.
Edema is the medical term for swelling that occurs when fluid becomes trapped in the body's tissues. It usually affects the legs and feet but can also occur in other parts of the body, such as the face or abdomen.
Other signs of edema include:
- shiny, stretched skin over the affected area
- skin that stays dimpled after pressing it
- discomfort and reduced mobility
- coughing or difficulty breathing, if it affects the lungs
Edema may go away by itself, or there may be an underlying cause that needs medical treatment.
Home remedies include wearing support stockings, reducing salt intake, and lying down while raising the legs above the chest.
If the swelling does not improve, a person should talk to their doctor to check for any underlying causes.
Trauma to the foot or ankle can cause swelling in this area of the body.
For example, a sprained ankle, which occurs when the ligaments become overstretched, could cause the foot to swell.
To treat a foot or ankle injury, a person should elevate the foot when possible and try not to bear weight on the affected leg.
Using an ice pack or compression bandage can help reduce swelling, and over-the-counter pain relievers can help ease discomfort.
If the swelling and pain do not go away, a person might need to see their doctor to rule out more severe damage.
To treat swollen feet during pregnancy, women can elevate their feet where possible, wear comfortable and supportive footwear, and avoid standing for extended periods.
Staying cool, avoiding salt, and increasing water intake can help reduce fluid retention. Wearing supportive clothing, such as tights or compression stockings, should also reduce discomfort and help the swelling decrease.
If swelling during pregnancy comes on suddenly and is severe, it could be a sign of preeclampsia. This is a condition that can occur during pregnancy or immediately after the birth. Symptoms include protein in the urine, rapid excessive fluid retention, and high blood pressure.
This is a severe condition that usually occurs in the latter half of pregnancy and can progress to eclampsia, which is even more dangerous and constitutes a medical emergency.
Signs of preeclampsia include:
- severe swelling
- nausea and vomiting
- vision changes
- less frequent urination
If a pregnant woman experiences any of these symptoms, she should speak with her doctor or midwife straight away.
Some lifestyle factors can also lead to swollen feet. These factors include:
- having a sedentary lifestyle
- being overweight
- wearing ill-fitting shoes
Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of swollen feet.
Other ways to alleviate swollen feet include:
- drinking plenty of water
- wearing compression socks or stockings
- soaking the feet in cool water
- raising the feet above the heart regularly
- staying active
- losing weight if overweight
- eating a healthful diet and being mindful of salt intake
- massaging the feet
- eating more potassium-rich foods, as these can help reduce water retention
Taking certain medications can result in the feet swelling, especially if they cause water retention.
Medications that may cause the feet to swell include:
- hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone
- calcium-channel blockers that help control blood pressure
- steroids, both androgenic and anabolic, and corticosteroids
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- medication to help manage diabetes
Anyone who thinks that their medication is causing their feet to swell should speak with a doctor, who may be able to alter the dosage or prescribe a different type of medication.
Alcohol can cause the body to retain excess water, causing the feet to swell. If the swelling continues for more than 2 days, a person should make an appointment with their doctor.
Recurrent swelling of the feet after drinking alcohol may be a sign of an underlying issue with the heart, liver, or kidneys.
Elevating the feet above the heart, drinking plenty of water, and reducing salt intake may all help minimize swelling. Soaking the feet in cold water can also relieve symptoms.
During hot weather, the feet can swell because their veins expand to cool the body. This process can cause fluid to leak into the surrounding tissue. Fluid can also collect in the ankles and feet.
Drinking plenty of water and wearing well-fitting, comfortable shoes that allow some ventilation can help prevent the feet from swelling in warm weather.
An infection can cause swelling in the feet and ankles. People with diabetes have an increased risk of infection affecting their feet, so they should remain vigilant for any changes to this part of the body, such as blisters and sores appearing.
A doctor will typically prescribe antibiotics to treat infections.
Venous insufficiency occurs when a person's blood cannot flow around the body properly. This is due to damaged valves causing blood to leak down the vessels and fluid retention in the lower legs, particularly around the feet and ankles.
Signs of venous insufficiency include:
- achy legs
- skin changes, such as flaking
- new varicose veins appearing
- skin ulcers
A person experiencing any signs of venous insufficiency should make an appointment with their doctor as soon as possible.
To treat venous insufficiency, a doctor may recommend making some lifestyle changes, such as taking up exercise to help keep the blood pumping around the body efficiently. Compression stockings and medication to prevent blood clots can also help.
In some cases, a doctor may suggest surgery to try to repair the damaged valves.
Blood clots occur when the blood fails to flow around the body correctly, causing platelets to stick together.
If blood clots develop in the leg veins, they may prevent the blood from moving back to the heart. This can cause the ankles and feet to swell.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when blood clots form deep in the legs. DVT is a serious condition that can cause a blockage in the major leg veins. In some cases, the clots may break loose and move to the heart or lungs.
Signs of DVT include:
- swelling in one leg
- pain or discomfort in the leg
- low-grade fever
- color changes in the leg
If a person notices any signs of DVT, they should seek urgent medical attention. A doctor may prescribe blood-thinning medication to treat blood clots.
People can help prevent blood clots by wearing tights, compression stockings, or clothing that is loose-fitting around the ankles.
Other prevention methods include keeping active and reducing salt intake. It is also best to avoid standing or sitting still, especially with crossed legs, for extended periods.
The lymphatic system helps the body get rid of unwanted substances, such as bacteria and toxins. Lymphedema occurs when lymphatic fluid gathers in the tissues as a result of problems with the lymph vessels.
If the lymph vessels are damaged or absent, lymphatic fluid can build up and lead to infection, slow wound healing, and even deformity.
People who undergo radiation therapy or lymph node removal have a higher risk of lymphedema. Anyone who has undergone cancer treatment and experiences swelling should contact their doctor immediately.
As well as swelling of the feet, signs of lymphedema include:
- recurrent infections
- impaired motion
- a feeling of tightness or heaviness
- thickening of the skin
Treatment options for lymphedema include exercises and targeted massage, which can both help drain the excess fluid. Wearing bandages or compression garments may also be beneficial.
Right-sided heart failure can cause the body to retain salt and water, resulting in swollen feet.
As well as swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet, symptoms of heart failure include:
- shortness of breath, particularly when exercising or lying down
- rapid heartbeat
- coughing or wheezing
- white or pink, blood-tinged phlegm
- abdominal swelling
- rapid weight gain from fluid retention
- loss of appetite
- nausea or vomiting
- difficulty concentrating or confusion
If a person experiences any of the above symptoms, they should seek immediate medical attention.
Treatment options for heart failure include medications, medical devices to help support the heart, and surgery.
People with poorly functioning kidneys may not be able to flush out fluid, which can build up in the body.
Kidney disease may not present any symptoms until it is severe and the kidneys are beginning to fail. Signs and symptoms of kidney failure include:
- less frequent urination
- shortness of breath
- drowsiness or fatigue
- pain or pressure in the chest
The treatment options for kidney failure include dialysis or a kidney transplant.
Liver disease can inhibit the production of albumin. Albumin is a protein that helps stop the blood leaking from blood vessels. A lack of albumin means that the blood may leak, causing fluid to pool in the legs and feet, which can result in swelling.
Symptoms of liver disease include:
- jaundice, in which the skin and eyes turn yellow
- dark urine
- bruising easily
- loss of appetite
- skin itching
- lack of energy
- nausea or vomiting
- tender, swollen abdomen
- pale, bloody, or tar-colored stools
To treat liver disease, a doctor may prescribe medication. They may also suggest making lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or reducing alcohol intake.
In more severe cases of liver disease, surgery may be necessary.
Many cases of swollen feet tend to resolve without medical care, although home remedies and lifestyle changes can help reduce the swelling.
If the swelling does not go away or it occurs repeatedly, it is essential to make an appointment with a doctor to determine whether there is an underlying cause.
If swollen feet occur alongside shortness of breath, chest pain, or pressure in the chest, call the emergency services immediately.