Can Edema Kill You?

A person massaging swollen ankles and feet.

Edema is a condition that results in fluid retention within the tissues in the body. There are many possible causes of edema – understanding the cause can determine the treatment and possible complications. Can edema kill you? It depends on the type and the treatment you receive.

What Is Edema?

When fluid is trapped in the tissues causing swelling, this is referred to as edema. Edema can occur for a variety of reasons, such as excess salt intake, sitting for long periods, medications or as a symptom of certain diseases. The most common places for edema to occur is the legs, hands or feet.

The symptoms of edema are simply swelling and stretched skin. You can test to see if you have edema by pressing the skin for a few seconds with your finger and then releasing. If the skin stays indented or dimpled, this is a sign of edema.

Most edema can be treated on its own with medication or lifestyle changes. However, edema can be caused by serious health conditions such as heart failure, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver or kidney disease. These conditions require their own treatment, which may help reduce edema.

When to See a Doctor for Edema

Can edema kill you? In most cases, no; but it should not be ignored. Edema is common and usually affects the extremities, which does not impact the vital organs. If you have edema that lasts for more than a few days, you should make an appointment to see your doctor to determine the cause.

There are times when you should seek urgent medical care for edema. There are serious conditions that cause edema that can result in death. Both deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary edema can be deadly and require immediate medical attention.

Edema Caused by DVT

Deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, is when a blood clot occurs, usually in a leg. Edema occurs with DVT, usually with one leg swelling, not both. The leg may also be painful and warm to the touch. DVT can result in a pulmonary embolism, which can be fatal, requiring urgent medical care.

Pulmonary Edema

The most dangerous type of edema is pulmonary edema. This is when the fluid retention occurs in the lungs, and it can impact function and restrict breathing. Heart disease, medications, pneumonia and other issues can cause pulmonary edema, but it can also occur suddenly for unknown reasons.

Acute pulmonary edema is when the lungs suddenly become full of fluid. This is an emergency medical condition and one of the few situations when edema can kill you. The sudden symptoms of acute pulmonary edema are:

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Feeling like you are drowning
  • Heart palpitations and irregular heartbeat
  • Coughing accompanied by frothy sputum – it may contain blood
  • Clammy, cool skin
  • Wheezing

If you have these symptoms, call 911 or seek emergency medical care. Treatment is needed to increase oxygen and remove the fluid from the lungs. This can be a fatal condition without immediate medical attention.

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Treatment for Edema

Most edema can be relieved by treatment and lifestyle changes. Mild edema can be reduced simply by elevating the affected limb above your heart to allow the fluid to be naturally removed. Diuretic medications (water pills) may be used to reduce fluid retention. Other treatments or changes include:

  • Decreasing salt intake
  • Increasing water intake
  • Massaging the area
  • Increasing movement of the affected limbs
  • Use of compression clothing

For edema caused by an underlying condition, your doctor can perform treatment for your health concern, which may relieve your fluid retention. If your medication is causing edema, such as steroids, hypertension drugs, estrogens or NSAIDs, changing your medication may be required.

Long-Term Effects of Edema

While most types of edemas will not kill you, it can cause complications if not treated. Long-term swelling of the legs, feet or hands can result in damage to the skin or tissue. Some of the long-term effects of untreated edema include:

  • Limited mobility (walking)
  • Scarring in the skin and in the layers of tissue
  • Decreased circulation
  • Increased pain and swelling in the area
  • Risk of skin ulcers or infections
  • Stiffness in the area affected
  • Stretched, itchy skin

You should not ignore edema, even if it is not related to a serious health problem. When lifestyle and medication changes are not effective, your doctor can suggest treatment for your condition. This can reduce the chance of long-term complications and damage to the skin, tissue and blood vessels.
Young woman massaging her swollen hand.
If you have swollen ankles, calves or hands, these forms of edema will not likely kill you. However, if you have symptoms of DVT or acute pulmonary edema, these can be fatal and require emergency medical care. Anyone with edema should seek diagnosis for their condition to ensure it is not caused by a serious medical condition.