Fluid Retention: Symptoms, Causes, and How to Prevent It

Medically Reviewed By Megan Soliman, MD
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Fluid retention, also known as edema or water retention, is a buildup of excess fluid in tissues in your body. It can be a symptom of a wide range of conditions, including some that are serious. Fluid retention most often appears as swelling in your feet and lower legs. However, it can also occur in your arms, hands, face, and other areas. Cases of fluid retention can range from mild to severe.

This article will discuss the symptoms of fluid retention along with its possible causes, treatment options, and how to prevent it.

What is fluid retention?

Older man wearing compression socks standing on mountain peak against bright blue sky
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Fluid retention, or edema, describes any buildup of excess fluid that causes swelling. Edema may be temporary and due to a specific trigger, or may be a symptom of a chronic condition.

Types of fluid retention

Edema can occur anywhere in the body. Types of edema include:

  • peripheral edema, which is fluid retention in the:
    • legs
    • ankles
    • feet
    • arms
    • hands
  • macular edema, which is a buildup of fluid in the macula inside the eye
  • pulmonary edema, which is an excess of fluid in the lungs

Edema vs. lymphedema

Your body typically stores fluid in the areas between your cells, known as the interstitial space. Your lymphatic system helps maintain a balance of this fluid by carrying some of it away.

Lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system is not able to properly drain fluid from around your cells. This can cause chronic edema due to a long-term buildup of lymphatic fluid.

Hypervolemia is another condition that can occur when excess fluid in the body leads to an increase in blood volume.

Fluid retention may accompany other symptoms, which can vary depending on the underlying cause.

When diagnosing the cause of edema, doctors often check for “pitting.” Pitting is when pressure applied to a swollen area leaves an indentation after the pressure is released. Tenderness and changes to the skin that occur with edema can also help to determine the underlying cause.

Symptoms that frequently occur along with fluid retention may also involve other systems of the body.

Cardiovascular symptoms

Cardiovascular symptoms that may accompany fluid retention include:

Liver symptoms

Edema that is associated with a liver disease such as cirrhosis may also cause other symptoms including:

Urinary symptoms

Fluid retention can indicate a loss of kidney function, which may also include symptoms such as:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition

In some cases, fluid retention may be a symptom of a life threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms including:

  • chest pain or pressure
  • difficulty breathing
  • inability to urinate or reduced urination
  • loss of consciousness

What causes fluid retention?

Fluid retention can be caused by a variety of conditions ranging from mild to serious.

In some cases, edema may be a temporary response to a trigger such as eating a meal high in salt. However, when chronic or widespread, edema is often a symptom of an underlying condition.

Causes of temporary fluid retention

Temporary fluid retention can have several common causes including:

  • high salt intake
  • pregnancy
  • medication
  • burns
  • parasitic infection such as lymphatic filariasis
  • recent surgery
  • sitting or standing for an extended period of time

Venous insufficiency

Venous insufficiency is a condition in which veins in the legs are unable to properly push blood back to the heart. This causes blood in these veins to pool.

Venous insufficiency is the most common cause of peripheral edema in adults over the age of 50.

Heart failure

Heart failure occurs when the heart’s ability to pump blood is reduced. This makes it harder for veins to return blood to the heart, causing fluid retention.

According to a 2022 review, heart failure is the leading cause of hospitalization for adults in the United States over the age of 65.

Kidney disease

When your kidneys are not able to properly filter your blood, this can lead to fluid retention.

Kidney damage can result from chronic kidney disease or other kidney conditions. It may also occur as a symptom of other conditions including:

Liver disease

The liver works to filter toxins and other elements from your blood. Conditions that damage your liver may cause reduced liver function and lead to edema.

Conditions that commonly cause liver damage include:

Cancer

Cancer and cancer treatments can cause fluid retention.

Someone with cancer may also retain fluid in their abdomen as a result of pressure from tumors. This condition is known as “ascites.”

Talk with your oncologist or cancer care team right away if you experience painful swelling, warmth in the swollen area, or shortness of breath.

Sudden onset of edema

Fluid retention that occurs suddenly, or within 72 hours, may be a symptom of a serious or life threatening condition. These conditions require immediate evaluation and can include:

How is fluid retention treated?

Treatment for fluid retention will depend on the underlying cause. Your doctor will recommend treatment options based on your specific condition.

Treatment for fluid retention due to venous insufficiency often involves non-invasive therapies. These can include leg elevation, compression socks, and exercise. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to improve blood flow.

For fluid retention caused by heart failure, kidney disease, or liver disease, doctors often recommend diuretics. Diuretics are medications that increase the production of urine to help remove excess fluid from the body.

If you have kidney disease or heart failure, you will typically need to reduce salt in your diet and monitor your fluid intake. These steps can help you manage fluid retention. It is also important to weigh yourself daily. This will allow you to watch for changes that may indicate increased fluid retention.

Talk with your doctor if you suspect your fluid retention may be a side effect of medication. They can suggest alternative medications or ways to help you manage your symptoms.

What are ways to prevent fluid retention?

If your fluid retention is a symptom of a chronic condition, it may not be preventable. However, taking the following steps can help prevent mild or temporary fluid retention.

How to prevent mild fluid retention

  • Eat a diet that is low in salt, or reduce your sodium intake, if possible.
  • Talk with your doctor about types of exercise that can help improve your circulation.
  • Elevate your feet with pillows or a footrest when sitting or lying down.
  • Try not to cross your legs when sitting.
  • Avoid standing or sitting for long periods of time, particularly in warm weather.
  • Wear compression socks or support stockings to help keep fluid or blood from pooling in your lower legs.

Other frequently asked questions

These are some other questions people often ask about fluid retention.

How serious is water retention?

Fluid retention can be a symptom of some serious conditions including heart failure, kidney disease, and liver disease. Chronic retention of fluid can also lead to complications including joint stiffness, skin sores, shortness of breath, and difficulty walking.

What is the fastest way to get rid of water retention?

You can help reduce mild or temporary fluid retention by drinking enough water, limiting salt in your diet, and getting regular exercise. These steps promote blood flow and urine production, which can help clear excess fluid from your body. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe fast-acting medications that can help remove some of the excess fluid.

Is belly fat water retention?

Most often, belly fat is not related to fluid retention. However, people with cancer may experience a condition called ascites. Ascites is fluid buildup in the abdomen due to pressure from tumors.

Summary

Fluid retention, or edema, is a buildup of excess fluid that causes swelling in your tissues. Another name for this symptom is water retention.

Many conditions can cause your body to retain fluid. Mild edema can occur due to high salt intake or as a symptom of pregnancy. More serious causes of fluid retention include chronic conditions such as kidney disease, heart failure, and liver disease.

Contact your doctor if you experience chronic fluid retention. It may be a sign of an underlying condition that requires prompt treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Megan Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 16
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