The symptoms of edema vary depending on the location and the extent of swelling. For most types of edema, fluid builds up under the skin, causing swelling and making the overlying area stretched and shiny. Edema may be pitting or non-pitting. With pitting edema, pressing a finger against a swollen area and then removing it leaves an indentation that slowly disappears. When edema becomes more severe, the tissue swells so much that it can’t be displaced, and no indentation is left in the skin after applying pressure. This type of edema is called non-pitting. Edema that occurs over pressure points over bony areas of the body can develop into serious sores or ulcers, especially in bedridden patients.
Peripheral edema causes swelling of the ankles, feet, or legs. This type of edema is very common, especially among older adults. It is often painless, and may affect both legs. Because of gravity, the swelling is usually most severe in the lower legs, but the upper calves and thighs can be affected as well.
Pulmonary edema is a medical emergency characterized by severe difficulty breathing. Symptoms of pulmonary edema include:
- shortness of breath
- grunting while breathing
- a crackling or rattling noise in the lungs heard with a stethoscope (rales)
- excessive sweating
- abnormally pale skin (pallor)
- abnormal heartbeat or rhythm
- chest pain.
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
Usually, edema is a symptom of another underlying condition. In such cases, the risk factors for edema are the same as those for the underlying condition. In other words, when edema is associated with serious conditions such as kidney, liver, heart, and lung disease, the risk factors for edema are the same as those for the underlying diseases. For example, smoking is a major risk factor for chronic lung disease, high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, and obesity is a major risk factor for both heart disease and diabetes. All of these risk factors, then, also increase a person’s risk of developing edema.
Edema becomes more common with age. Because many of the underlying causes of edema occur more frequently with age, edema itself also becomes more common as people get older.
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