What is anasarca?

What is anasarca?

Anasarca is general all-body swelling that can occur when the body’s tissues retain too much fluid. Often known as extreme generalized oedema, this condition.

Fluid accumulation can occur due to any diseases and conditions that alter the body’s proteins, affect the fluid balance, or cause irregularities in the blood vessels or lymphatic system.

This is also a sign of serious organ damage or disease if anasarca is present.

Definition of anasarca

A doctor looking at result paper
Anasarca is a symptom of a condition, and may be diagnosed with a physical assessment.

It’s important to realize that anasarca isn’t itself a disease. Rather, it is a sign of a medical condition, or a consequence.

Anasarca is isolated from traditional edema. At some stage, virtually everybody is experiencing swelling, which may be due to a number of factors, such as accident, dehydration, or a mild side effect of medication.

Swelling or edema can in certain cases only affect a certain part of the body, such as the feet, hands, or legs.

But the swelling affects the whole body with anasarca, and is considered extreme. The swelling, for example, is frequently so severe that it hampers movement.

Treatment of anasarca

Finding out what causes anasarca to handle it with precision is important. For example, if anasarca is caused by kidney disease, medication is required to help kidney function.

Doctors most sometimes recommend medications to treat the extreme swelling.


Doctors also prescribe medications which are called diuretics. Diuretics function by helping the kidneys release more salt into the urine, allowing more fluid to be released through urination.

The two key types of anasarca diuretics recommended are potassium-sparing and diuretics of the chains. Diuretics are either taken by mouth, or intravenously (IV) administered. Diuretic option, dosage, and route of administration differ depending on the severity of the swelling, and the underlying condition that causes anasarca.


Albumin is a body-made protein that is required for a number of important functions including fluid balance. The level of albumin can get too small in cases of poor nutrition and some serious medical conditions. When this happens fluid is forced out of the tissues causing swelling from the bloodstream. Replacing albumin can in some cases help to fix this issue.


A doctor can prescribe additional home therapies to improve recovery. It is necessary to control fluid and salt intake so that any swelling does not get worse. Salt can improve the fluid retention, which is why people with severe edema need to minimize their salt intake.

What are the causes?

When intravenous fluids are administered excessively, it may increase the risk of anasarca.
When intravenous fluids are administered excessively, it may increase the risk of anasarca.

Anasarca may develop from a variety of causes. Some conditions which can lead to anasarca are common, while others are rare.

The most frequent reasons for anasarca include:

  • Excess administration of intravenous fluids: Intravenous fluids are frequently given to treat various conditions in the hospital, such as shock, fatigue, and infection. But if the body is unable to adapt to the given fluids it can lead to serious edema.
  • Kidney disease: Once kidney function is affected, fluid is not eliminated from the body properly, which can cause anasarca.
  • Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis can occur due to liver failure. Liver disease can cause changes in the hormones that affect fluid regulation in the body. When the liver does not work as efficiently as it should, it can cause fluid to leak into the tissues.
  • Malnutrition: Malnutrition, specifically protein deficiency in the diet, can cause fluid to accumulate in the tissues. In extreme cases, it can lead to anasarca.
  • Poor heart function: When the muscle of the heart does not work correctly, it affects how well the heart pumps blood throughout the body. If the heart is not pumping efficiently, it can cause fluid to build up in the tissues.
  • Allergic reaction: Swelling of the body can occur due to an allergic reaction. In severe reactions, anasarca can develop.

Less common causes include:

Capillary leak syndrome

Capillary leak syndrome occurs when protein and fluid leak out of the blood vessels into the body’s tissues. The cause is not well known but it is thought to be due to inflammation and damage to the blood vessels. Due to certain drugs and toxins it has been shown to occur.

The capillary leak syndrome can develop as a result of certain cancer drugs, such as gemcitabine, according to one case study. Another case was reported following a snakebite.

A side effect of medication

Different medicines can cause anasarca. Steroids and blood pressure medications, such as amlodipine, are among the most common forms of medicine that may induce swelling. Discontinuing the drug will also relieve anasarca symptoms as stated in the article on this case.

Anasarca symptoms

Anasarca causes obvious body swelling. In certain cases an indentation may remain after release of pressure when the skin is pressed.
Anasarca causes obvious body swelling. In certain cases an indentation may remain after release of pressure when the skin is pressed.

The principal symptom of anasarca is body swelling. The swelling is evident, and can look bright and spread on the face. Swelling is so serious sometimes, that a person has difficulty moving.

Swelling can get so serious that fluid spills directly out of the skin. This is called weeping edema.

They can also experience pitting edema. Pitting edema occurs when pressure is applied to swollen skin, and after release of the pressure, a dimple or indentation remains.

Swelling often triggers more symptoms including:

  • trouble walking if the legs are swollen
  • difficulty lifting arms
  • increased heart rate
  • aching joints
  • difficulty breathing

Anasarca may also develop a life-threatening condition if fluid builds up in the lungs. Fluid is called pulmonary edema in the lungs, which can easily become an emergency. Pulmonary edema signs include chest pain, shortness of breath and coughing.

How is anasarca diagnosed?

A doctor will typically make a diagnosis of anasarca after a physical examination; and if the edema is serious, a doctor will also quickly diagnose it. Nonetheless, further tests are needed to determine the underlying cause of the anasarca.

The first step in making a diagnosis of anasarca is always a blood test. Blood is analyzed to measure organ function including heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys.

A doctor will also take medical records to help determine whether the fluid retention is caused by any underlying medical conditions. A doctor may also recommend other diagnostic tests such as an echocardiogram, an X-ray in the chest and a stress test to evaluate the function of the heart and lungs.


Anasarca is also caused by serious injury or disease to the liver. This can interfere with a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks and can drastically reduce their quality of life. But also swelling can be reduced with proper treatment. While medication may help treat the disorder, if the underlying cause can not be resolved, anasarca can return.

The outlook for anasarca sufferers also depends on determining the cause. For certain cases the underlying condition has advanced to a critical state by the time anasarca has developed.

Treating heart, lung, kidney and liver disorders early on is in many cases the best chance to avoid and control anasarca.