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What to know about water retention

Retention of water, or fluid, happens when there is a issue with one or more processes in the body to control fluid levels. The main symptoms are swelling and discomfort.

The circulatory system, the lungs, the lymph system, hormonal influences and certain body functions also help to maintain safe rates of fluids. But, if there is a problem with one or more of these systems, fluid retention-otherwise known as edema-can occur.

Edema can affect any part of the body. This occurs on a number of grounds.

The article would discuss some of the causes and effects of water retention, and how to treat it.


A person with fluid retention may experience stiffness in the joints, changes in skin color, and swelling.
A person with fluid retention may experience stiffness in the joints, changes in skin color, and swelling.

The symptoms of fluid retention will depend on the area it affects. Common areas include the lower legs, the hands, the abdomen, and the chest.

In the limbs, feet, and hands, symptoms include:

  • swelling
  • changes in skin color
  • shiny or puffy skin
  • areas of skin that remain indented when pushed in with a finger, known as pitting edema
  • aches and tenderness in the limbsfu
  • stiffness in the joints
  • weight gain

Fluid retention can also affect the following areas:

The brain

Often known as hydrocephalus, fluid accumulation in the brain can cause symptoms such as vomiting, blurred vision, headache and balance difficulties. This is potentially life threatening.

The lungs

Excess fluid in the lungs, or pulmonary edema, can signify a serious heart or respiratory issue. Symptoms include trouble breathing, cough , chest pain and fatigue, as this can affect the capacity of the lungs to supply the body with oxygen.


Most edema conditions will resolve untreated.

If an underlying disorder is present, a doctor should focus on treating that.

Diuretics is one alternative for the treatment. They can help remove fluid from the body by the kidneys. Nonetheless, these are typically a short-term solution, as they can cause side effects such as dehydration, increased water retention and damage to the kidney.


The human body controls the water levels using a complex system. Hormonal causes, cardiovascular system , urinary system, liver and kidneys all play a role in this cycle. If all of these sections have a problem the body may not be able to expel fluid as it should.

The sections below discuss in more detail possible causes of fluid retention.

Capillary damage

Capillaries are tiny blood vessels which play a key role in managing the body’s fluid balance. Some drugs can cause damage to the capillaries, such as those for high blood pressure.

Capillaries supply fluid to tissues surrounding it. The fluid, called interstitial fluid, provides cells with nutrients and oxygen. The fluid returns to the capillaries after it releases the nutrients.

If the capillaries get damaged, edema can develop. Possible issues include variations in the pressure inside the capillaries, and being too leaky the capillary walls.

If these problems occur, too much liquid may escape the capillaries and invade the cell spaces. When the capillaries are unable to reabsorb the fluid it may linger in the tissues , causing swelling and accumulation of water.

Many people experience this kind of edema because they have a special disorder called systemic leaky capillary syndrome.

Congestive heart failure

The heart’s pumping action helps keep regular pressure within the blood vessels. When the heart of a person stops functioning efficiently the blood pressure can change. That may result in fluid retention.

Swelling may occur in the legs , feet, and ankles as well as fluid in the lungs, which may result in long-term cough or difficulty breathing.

Congestive heart failure will eventually lead to difficulty breathing and stress on the heart. And it can be life threatening.

The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system transports lymph through the body. Lymph is a fluid formed by white blood cells. This allows the body to protect the immune system against infection. When the lymphatic system releases lymphatic fluid and reabsorbs it also helps the body maintain fluid balance.

If an issue prevents proper functioning of the lymphatic system, fluid may start building up around the tissues. It can cause swelling in various areas of your body, including your belly, knees, thighs, and feet.

This system can also cause issues with cancer, infections, and blockages.

The kidneys

The kidneys absorb the blood and help maintain levels of fluid within the body.

Waste, fluids, and other substances in the kidneys pass into tiny tubules which function as a filter. The liver reabsorbs everything the body can reuse, and eliminates the urine waste.

When the kidneys do not function properly, they would not be able to remove waste material like sodium and fluids. And the fluid remains in the body.

For example, people with chronic kidney disease may experience swelling in the lower extremities, hands or face.


The body holds more water than usual during pregnancy and this can lead to swelling in the lower limbs — especially during hot weather or after a long period of standing.

It can also contribute to hormonal changes and carrying extra weight in the abdomen.

Usually this isn’t harmful and it fixes often after delivery.

But, if the swelling unexpectedly becomes more severe, it may be a sign of pre-eclampsia. This is a type of high blood pressure, which can damage both the mother and the fetus.

Anyone who develops headaches, vomiting , rib pain or vision issues along with increased swelling during pregnancy should seek medical attention immediately.

Physical inactivity

People with problems with mobility or a sedentary lifestyle can develop edema in the lower legs. Underuse can cause a loss of strength in the calf muscle pump.

It may help to:

  • keep the feet raised
  • wear compression stockings
  • practice exercises, such as raising and lowering the feet or rotating the ankles


Given the extra weight they carry, people with obesity can experience swelling. Obesity also raises the risk of high blood pressure, kidney disease , and heart disease which can all lead to edema.

Obesity also raises the risk of metabolic syndrome, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other health issues.


Albumin is a protein which helps control fluids in the human body. If a person has a severe protein deficiency, transferring interstitial fluid back into the capillaries can be more difficult for their body.

When an individual is seriously undernourished, kwashiorkor can grow. Symptoms include muscle mass loss, and an swollen belly. That is due to fluid accumulation in the tissues of the body.

What is malnutrition, and who is at risk? Learn more here.

Infections and allergies

The role of the immune system is to guard the body against disease and infection. When an unwanted invader, such as bacteria or an allergen, is detected by the immune system it will mount an attack. The process involves inflammation.

The body releases histamine when inflammation does occur. Histamine induces widening of the spaces between capillary wall cells. It does this to allow the white blood cells that battle infection to reach the site of inflammation.

This can also, however, cause fluid to leak from the capillaries into the surrounding tissues. Normally, the swelling that comes from that is short-term.

People with inflammation over the long term can experience water retention.


Some medications can also lead to water retention.

These include:

  • calcium channel blockers
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • gabapentin
  • some hormonal therapies, including some birth control pills
  • prednisone, which is a corticosteroid
  • some diabetes medications

Someone who has anxiety about swelling when taking a drug will talk to their doctor. They can change the dosage, or suggest an alternative.

Edema may develop when a person is using pills for birth control. What more adverse effects can occur? Found out here.

Hormonal conditions

A hormonal imbalance can result in the retention of fluid by the following means:

Menstruation: Changes in the hormonal balance can lead to fluid accumulation prior to menstruation. This can result in a person experiencing bloating and tenderness to the breast.

Thyroid problems: The thyroid gland releases hormones which play a role in fluid levels management. While people with a condition affecting the thyroid gland may experience water retention.

Cushing ‘s syndrome: This disorder causes too much steroid hormone to be released by the adrenal gland, leading to leg swelling.

Home remedies

Some fluid retention causes need medical treatment but home remedies can help relieve the symptoms. Some of those are discussed in more detail in the sections below.

Herbal remedies


If a person has edema in their lower limbs, it may help to:

  • sit with the legs raised above the heart several times each day
  • sleep with the affected limb on a pillow, to raise it above the level of the heart
  • have a massage, in which someone strokes the affected area firmly but gently toward the heart


Those herbs are natural diuretics. For example, the dandelion extract (Taraxacum officinale) can help to reduce the amount of water the body retains in a day.

The National Center for Holistic and Integrative Health states that dandelion is “generally considered safe” as a vegetable, although there is no empirical evidence to prove it has any therapeutic value or is effective as a treatment. Some people may have an allergy to it too.

Before taking this or any other herbal remedy, a person should speak to a doctor. For example, diuretics may not be safe for people suffering from kidney disease.

People with edema may want to wear loose clothing, because it will be more comfortable and will allow the circulation of fluid.

Use support stockings to boost circulation in the lower limbs.


One way of controlling water retention by diet is by raising the consumption of salt.

Furthermore, one study showed that increased magnesium and vitamin B-6 intake decreased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, including edema. Magnesium dietary sources include beans, nuts, whole grains and leafy greens, while Bananas, walnuts, and potatoes contain vitamin B-6.

Additives such as vitamin B-6 and magnesium are available for purchase. Please speak to your doctor before you take some supplements.


To reduce or prevent water retention, try:

  • managing weight
  • getting regular exercise
  • wearing support stockings, if edema affects the lower limbs
  • avoiding sitting or standing still for too long
  • taking breaks to walk around during long journeys
  • avoiding extreme temperatures, such as hot baths, showers, and saunas

While fluid retention can not always be avoided, maintaining a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise will help reduce the risk.

Chukwuebuka Martins

Chukwuebuka Martins is a writer, researcher, and health enthusiast who specializes in human physiology. He takes great pleasure in penning informative articles on many aspects of physical wellness, which he then thoroughly enjoys sharing to the general public.