Peripheral edema is a fluid buildup in the extremities, resulting in swelling. The swelling may accompany other symptoms depending on the underlying cause.

Many conditions and medications can cause peripheral edema.

This article takes a look at peripheral edema. After detailing its symptoms, the article will discuss the causes and risk factors of this condition.

It will also describe how doctors diagnose and treat peripheral edema.

a person is lying on a bed with a green blanket. the rest of the photo is black and whiteShare on Pinterest
Fiordaliso/Getty Images

Healthcare professionals define peripheral edema as excess fluids in the tissues of the extremities. As this fluid builds up, it can cause swelling in the following body parts:

  • feet
  • ankles
  • legs
  • hands
  • arms

Sometimes, large amounts of swelling can occur quickly over a period of 72 hours. Other times, the swelling gradually increases over days, weeks, or even months.

Can it affect one side only?

According to a 2023 review, peripheral edema can sometimes be unilateral.

Unilateral peripheral edema is when the fluid buildup only affects the extremities on one side of the body. For instance, someone may have swelling in their right arms and legs. Another individual may have swelling in only their left foot.

Peripheral edema can relate to aging. The 2023 article notes that the most common cause in people over 50 is venous insufficiency. This is when the veins in the leg have difficulty returning blood to the heart.

It can also develop during pregnancy, allergies, or as a result of injury, such as burns and insect bites.

Other causes include:

  • Premenstrual edema: Water retention that develops before menstruation.
  • Vitamin deficiencies: Some vitamin deficiencies, such as thiamine deficiency, can cause swelling.
  • Preeclampsia or eclampsia: These are high blood pressure conditions that can cause swelling during pregnancy.
  • Deep vein thrombosis: A blood clot that forms in a deep vein. The swelling will develop on one side of the body.
  • Congestive heart failure (CHF): CHF is when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
  • Renal disease or failure: This refers to impaired kidney function, which can lead to kidney failure.
  • Hepatic disease: This is diseases of the liver, such as liver cirrhosis and liver failure.
  • Pericarditis: This refers to the swelling of the tissue around the heart.
  • Pulmonary hypertension: This is high blood pressure that affects the arteries in the lungs and on the right side of the heart.
  • Cellulitis: An infection that affects the deep layers of the skin.
  • Lymphedema: An accumulation of lymphatic fluid which arises from problems in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is part of the immune system and can drain fluid from all around the body.
  • Myxedema: A severe kind of hypothyroidism, which is when the thyroid gland is not active enough.
  • Lipedema: This is when there is a disproportionate buildup of fat in the legs.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea: This is when there are partial or complete blockages of the upper airways during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea can lead to pulmonary hypertension, which can cause peripheral edema.

Medications can also cause peripheral edema. Examples include:

According to a 2021 study, the primary risk factor for peripheral edema is age. In the United States, 19–20% of people over the age of 54 may have peripheral edema.

Other risk factors for peripheral edema include:

Doctors can diagnose peripheral edema with a physical exam. The diagnostic process focuses on finding the underlying cause of peripheral edema. This may include:

  • a review of medical history
  • a physical exam to detect other symptoms
  • a chest radiography
  • an electrocardiogram
  • a renal ultrasound
  • a liver ultrasound
  • liver function tests
  • blood tests

As doctors begin to discern the cause of peripheral edema, they may need to perform further specialized testing.

Treating the underlying condition can help to resolve peripheral edema.

To help ease peripheral edema that relates to aging and venous insufficiency, a person should elevate their legs.

It can also help to eat a diet low in salt, exercise regularly, and attend routine checkups to detect any underlying causes.

Generally speaking, doctors will aim to treat peripheral edema by addressing its underlying cause. Treatments for this cause will vary.

Anyone with symptoms of peripheral edema should contact a doctor. Doing so is necessary in order to diagnose and treat its underlying cause.

If the swelling is on one side of the body, it can indicate:

  • DVT
  • cellulitis
  • obstruction in a vein
  • obstruction of the lymph vessels

If the swelling develops on both sides of the body, it can indicate CHF, liver failure, or kidney disease.

Peripheral edema is when there is a buildup of fluid in the extremities. It can cause noticeable swelling, which may appear quickly or very gradually. It can affect one side of the body, or both, depending on the underlying cause.

There are many causes of peripheral edema. It often develops as a person ages or as a result of medications, pregnancy, or injury. More serious causes include problems with the heart, liver, and kidneys.

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of peripheral edema. Elevating the swollen limbs, eating a low-salt diet, and exercising regularly can help to ease the symptoms in some cases.

Peripheral edema can be a sign of deep vein thrombosis, a potentially life threatening condition. Anyone with recent but significant swelling in an extremity should contact the emergency services.