What Are The Four Types of Edema?

Written By Center for Vein Restoration

If you’ve noticed you’re feeling a little swollen and stiff lately, don’t dismiss it as “water weight.” Bodily swelling or “edema,” especially in the arms, hands, feet, and legs, can have many different causes, but some are more serious than others. Some types of edema can be a symptom of a more significant medical issue that may need your doctor’s attention.

Edema, especially stubborn bodily swelling that isn’t responding to home remedies or lifestyle changes, could indicate a more serious underlying condition and might act as a red flag for your medical team that your vein health may need specialized attention. Read along further to discover more about the four types of edema, how your vein health can be impacted by or cause edema, and when to reach out for medical attention.

What is Edema?

Edema is the medical term for swelling caused by abnormal accumulation of fluid in the spaces in between organs of the body. When fluid fills the interstitial spaces of the body, it leads to tissue expansion and swelling. Edema can be caused by benign daily activities like overexertion or eating too much salt, or it could be a symptom of a much more serious medical issue such as kidney or heart disease, a blood clot, or deep vein thrombosis. It’s important to understand the difference between the types of edema and when to seek medical attention, as certain types of edema can be fatal.

The four types of edema are:

Peripheral Edema

The most common type of edema is peripheral edema which typically involves the swelling of extremities, including the arms, hands, feet, ankles, and legs. Peripheral edema occurs when excess fluid accumulates between the tissues and skin of the legs, ankles, and feet.

Symptoms of peripheral edema include but aren’t limited to:

  • Swelling, tightness, or puffiness of the legs, ankles, feet, arms, or hands.

  • Clothing and jewelry begin to feel tight and uncomfortable.

  • The skin feels hot and tight.

  • The affected limb or extremity feels achy and “heavy.”

  • “Pitting edema” occurs when you can press on the swollen area, leaving a dent in the flesh.

Benign or unserious causes for peripheral edema include but aren’t limited to:

  • Overexertion from being on your feet for a long time or a particularly hard workout

  • High salt intake

  • Periods of prolonged immobility

  • Injury

  • Medication side effects

  • Pregnancy

Peripheral edema caused by lifestyle choices can be improved by getting more exercise, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, elevating the legs, wearing compression stockings, and maintaining a healthy diet. Peripheral edema can also be a warning symptom of more serious underlying medical conditions.

More serious causes of peripheral edema include but aren’t limited to:

  • Venous insufficiency: Venous insufficiency occurs when the vascular system of the legs is unable to return blood to the heart, causing fluid and blood to pool in the lower extremities. If untreated, chronic venous insufficiency can lead to other more serious issues.

  • Heart disease: Heart conditions like congestive heart failure or heart disease can cause peripheral edema because the heart is unable to pump blood effectively, which causes fluid to back up into the veins.

  • Kidney disease: Kidney disease can cause excess fluid to accumulate in the arms, legs, and body.

  • Lymphedema: Swelling from lymphedema is caused when there’s an impairment to the body’s lymphatic system that interrupts its ability to drain excess fluid away from parts of the body. Lymphedema is not the same as lipedema, a chronic condition caused by an abnormal accumulation of fat in the legs and lower body. Lymphedema is caused by “water” or fluid buildup in the body whereas the excessive growth of fat cells causes lipedema.

  • Deep vein thrombosis: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is caused by the abnormal formation of a clot deep in a leg vein. DVT is serious and life-threatening.

If you’ve had symptoms of peripheral edema that don’t respond to home remedies or are accompanied by:

  • Sudden shortness of breath

  • Sudden onset of swelling

  • Warmth radiating from below the knee

  • Chest pains

  • Redness or discoloration of the skin near the swelling

Seek medical attention, as you could be experiencing symptoms of a blood clot or deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema is a potentially life-threatening condition caused when fluid accumulates in the air sacs of the lungs or alveoli, making it hard to breathe and preventing the heart from circulating oxygen-rich blood.

Common causes of pulmonary edema include but are not limited to:

  • Acute Respiratory Distress (ARDS): According to the Mayo Clinic, acute respiratory distress occurs when fluid accumulates and fills the alveoli, preventing your lungs from filling with air and providing enough oxygen to the body and symptoms include labored breathing, severe shortness of breath, confusion, tiredness, and low blood pressure. Infections like sepsis, head or chest trauma/injury, and illnesses such as Covid-19 or pneumonia commonly cause ARDS.

  • Heart failure: When your heart cannot circulate oxygenated blood to the rest of your body efficiently, pressure builds up from the blood surrounding blood vessels and veins and leaks into the air sacs of the lungs.

  • Toxic exposure: Inhaling toxic substances can damage the lung tissue, causing fluid buildup in the lungs.

Symptoms of pulmonary edema are severe and not to be ignored. See a medical professional immediately if you have symptoms as described above.

Macular Edema

Macular edema is swelling of the macula or central part of the retina in the eye. This area is responsible for sharp vision. Macular edema occurs when fluid builds up in the macula, causing vision problems. Causes of macular edema include but are not limited to:

  • Diabetic Retinopathy: High blood sugar levels can cause damage to the blood vessels in the retina, causing fluid to leak into the macula.

  • Eye Injuries: Injury to the eye can cause inflammation and swelling in the macula.

  • Retinal Vein Occlusion: A blockage in the retinal veins can cause impaired blood flow and make fluid accumulate.

If you’re experiencing any unusual swelling or vision changes, seek medical attention.

Cerebral Edema

Cerebral swelling happens when there’s an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the brain, causing intracranial pressure, which is life-threatening. Cerebral edema can be caused by but is not limited to:

  • Stroke: Strokes can result in swelling of the brain once the blood flow to the brain is compromised.

  • Infections: Infections such as encephalitis or meningitis can lead to inflammation and fluid buildup in the brain.

  • Trauma or Injury: Injury to the head such as blunt force trauma can cause cranial edema.

Cerebral edema is a life-threatening form of edema. You should seek medical attention if you’re experiencing symptoms such as severe headache, nausea, vomiting, altered mental state, and other neurological symptoms.

Is Edema Serious?

The seriousness of the edema and swelling depends on the location, cause, and severity of the symptoms. Pulmonary, cerebral, and macular edema are very serious and require immediate medical treatment. To treat edema, your medical team needs to know the underlying causes. While some are treatable with positive lifestyle changes, others require serious medical intervention. Your vein health plays a major role in your overall health. If you’re struggling with symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency or vein disease, check in with your provider to see if seeing a vein specialist is right for you.

If you’re experiencing chronic peripheral edema, it may be a sign it’s time to discuss your vein health with your medical provider. Your peripheral edema may be caused by vein disease or chronic venous insufficiency.

It’s good practice to understand your vein health options, especially if your peripheral edema keeps you up at night or impacts your quality of life and you are not responding to self-care remedies such as rest, compression, and increasing your exercise. It may be time to discuss the possibility of vein disease with your provider.

At Center for Vein Restoration, we take an individual approach to vein disease, considering your lifestyle and treatment goals for painful causes of leg swelling such as:

Our safe, minimally invasive procedures help you put your vein health first and get back to the life you love.

In Conclusion: What Are The Four Types of Edema?

It’s important to tell your doctor about any swelling in your feet, ankles, or legs so they can rule out any serious underlying causes, especially if you haven’t seen any relief from lifestyle modifications. Our expert vein physicians at Center for Vein Restoration are here to help you explore your treatment options for healthier veins and less uncomfortable swelling. Visit us at one of our many locations, we have over 110 vein clinic locations in the U.S. Schedule an appointment with a provider today and get informed about your vein health.

Call 240-965-3915 to speak to a Patient Services Representative or schedule your consultation online /at a CVR near you.

Find CVR Near You