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Fluid retention is a sign that the body has either lost more water than it should or taken more fluid than it can take in. This fluid imbalance is called edema.

Because there’s too much fluid in the tissues, swelling ensues. This likely shows up in the legs, feet and ankles, though it can affect any part of the body, such as the hands, abdomen and even the face. It can also come with fatigue, nausea and persistent coughing.

Edema is common, but pregnant women and people 65 and older are more prone than the rest of the population. Mild cases see swelling go away on its own, but more serious cases require diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes as a form of treatment.

My mother suffered from edema as a result of her diabetes. Diabetes affects the endocrine system and because her diabetes was so far advanced, her kidneys were not functioning correctly and thus, swelling ensued.

My mom did find relief with medications like Dyrenium which is used to reduce surplus fluid in the body (edema) created by ailments including congestive heart failure, liver illness, and kidney disease. Eliminating additional water helps to minimize fluid in the lungs so that breathing is more manageable. In addition, it assists in reducing the swelling of the arms, legs, and abdomen.

It is a certain kind of “water pill” (potassium-sparing diuretic). It works by increasing the amount of urine you make, allowing your body to get rid of extra salt (sodium) and water while also preventing the kidneys from getting rid of too much potassium.

There are several reasons why a person has edema. Here are some of the most common causes of fluid retention.

Staying in One Position for Too Long

Whether you’re standing or sitting down, doing so for prolonged periods may lead to fluid retention or edema. This may be the case when you’re flying in an airplane, have a sedentary lifestyle, have mobility issues, or simply don’t change positions often enough. 

This physical inactivity leads to poor blood and fluid circulation. Staying in one position for too long can restrict blood flow and cause fluid to pool in your arms, legs and feet. 

Hormonal Changes in the Body

As we move in and out of certain phases of our growth and development, our body experiences many changes. Some of these changes include getting periods or getting pregnant. 

  • Menstruation – Menstrual changes typically come with fluctuating hormones. Before menstruation, bloating, breast tenderness and fluid buildup or water retention are common. 
  • Pregnancy –During pregnancy, there’s a shift in weight that places additional pressure on the blood vessels on the lower part of the body. This can lead to difficulty in moving around regularly and could result in water retention, especially in the legs and feet.
  • Hormonal conditions – At least a couple of conditions cause hormonal imbalance that could play a part in the body retaining more fluid than it should. For instance, problems with the thyroid gland, which releases hormones that help manage fluid levels, could lead to water retention. Another example is Cushing’s syndrome, where the adrenal gland produces more steroid hormone than normal, which could lead to swelling of the legs. 

Another issue is a lack of antidiuretic hormone (ADH). This prompts the kidneys to remove too much fluid from the body, creating a chemical imbalance in the blood, extreme thirst and dehydration. 


Overweight people carry extra weight, which increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney disease. The excess weight and its accompanying illnesses can all result in edema. 

“Weight change is the earliest sign of a problem with fluid balance,” says Dr. Eldrin Lewis, a heart failure specialist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Most people will retain 8 to 15 pounds of excess fluid before they see leg and belly swelling.” 


Edema can be a side effect of some medicines, such as drugs for blood pressure and pain management. 

In addition, certain types of medication can also affect fluid balance. In particular, diuretics or water pills, which are used to treat a number of diseases like heart failure and blood pressure, can lead to water retention. 

Other medicines that can lead to edema include: 

  • Hormonal therapies, including some contraceptive or birth control pills
  • Anti-depressants
  • Estrogens
  • Steroids
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Chemotherapy treatments
  • Medicines for Parkinson’s disease
  • Thiazolidinediones, a diabetes drug
  • Prednisone, a corticosteroid

Sickness or Disease

Fluid retention can also be a sign of an underlying medical condition. For many diseases, edema is a symptom. 

Here are some of them: 

  • Heart failure

When the heart has problems pumping blood effectively, blood circulates more slowly throughout the body as a result. This leads to the kidneys activating hormones that tell the body to retain fluid and sodium to improve blood circulation. 

Fluids accumulate in the legs, feet and ankles or in the stomach. It can also build up in the lungs, which can lead to long-term cough and breathing problems. This puts additional stress on the heart and can be detrimental to the health and well-being of a person or worse. 

“Fluid buildup can quickly escalate into a life-threatening situation,” says Dr. Eldrin Lewis.

  • Liver cirrhosis

When the liver suffers damage because of cirrhosis, pressure on the liver increases while production of protein decreases. This leads to fluid buildup in the legs and stomach.

  • Kidney disease

When the kidney is damaged, it has a hard time getting rid of unneeded fluids. So, excess fluids are retained along with salts. Edema due to kidney disease typically occurs in the lower limbs, upper extremities, and face, especially around the eyes. 

  • Chronic venous insufficiency

This condition occurs when one-way valves in the leg are damaged or not working properly. As a result, blood has a hard time going back to the heart and instead accumulates. Swelling also ensues. 

  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

DVT typically occurs when one of the veins in the leg experiences a blood clot, which results in its swelling. DVT is a medical emergency. 

  • Allergies

People with food allergies usually see a part of their body swell after eating something containing an allergen. The swelling is the body’s response to the allergen and results from a buildup of fluid in the skin. The same is true for people who have direct skin contact with an allergen.

Poor Nutrition

Eating a well-balanced diet is a key to proper health. When that’s not followed, such as when a person eats foods that contain too much salt, it can affect the movement of fluids in the body. Bodily fluids can build up when there’s too much sodium in the food you’re eating or if you’re fond of eating processed foods or soft drinks. 

Malnutrition can lead to a lower level of albumin, a protein that aids in the body’s management of fluids. When poor nutrition has led to a severe protein deficiency, the body might have a hard time moving interstitial fluid back into the capillaries. 

Kwashiorkor is another condition that results from severe malnutrition. Fluid retention in tissues can lead to an enlarged abdomen and a loss of muscle mass. 

What Causes Fluid Retention?

In conclusion, fluid retention (edema) can stem from various causes. Recognizing and addressing underlying factors like inactivity, hormonal changes, obesity, medications, and diseases is crucial.

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