Edema refers to swelling that occurs when excess fluid becomes trapped between the tissues of our bodies' organs, namely the skin. This fluid (known as interstitial fluid) is tightly regulated in the healthy body, and maintained under homeostasis. Edema results when the body is unable to regulate the amount of water in its cells, and water leaks into the interstitial spaces leading to fluid retention.
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Symptoms of edema depend on the underlying cause. For most conditions affecting the skin, symptoms include:
When edema affects other organs such as the lungs and heart, more serious symptoms occur. These symptoms often require immediate medical intervention, and include:
Edema is caused by a number of different pathological processes, and ranges in severity accordingly. It can occur alongside local inflammation, as with a pimple or bug bite, or it may affect the entire body as a result of an underlying disease process. Edema often occurs in the arms and legs, where gravity enables fluid to collect. This is called "peripheral edema.
A licensed medical professional can diagnose edema using a combination of visual and physical assessment. Visible swelling and obscured articulation of the limbs indicates abnormal fluid retention in these areas. Edema may be categorized as "pitting" when a doctor presses firmly on the area and an imprint is left, or "non-pitting" if no indent remains. With long-standing edema, dark red sores may appear.
Edema associated with chronic heart failure, kidney disease, or cirrhosis of the liver may require further diagnostic tests. These include blood tests and urinalysis, as well as chest x-rays and ultrasounds, which help to identify the edema's underlying cause.
Mild forms of edema often resolve without treatment. For example, edema in pregnant women results from irregular weight distribution, and generally subsides after delivery of the child. Edema associated with acute inflammatory processes may be reduced with elevation and ice.
Systemic edema caused by underlying chronic pathology may require lifestyle modification or medication to rid the body of excess fluid.
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