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Water Retention

Edema (also known as dropsy or fluid retention) is swelling caused by the accumulation of abnormally large amounts of fluid in the spaces between the body's cells. It is a symptom rather than a disease or disorder. Widespread, long-term edema can indicate a serious underlying disorder.

Signs and Symptoms

These will vary and may include the following.


bulletSwollen limbs (possibly accompanied by pain, redness, heat)
bulletFacial puffiness; abdominal bloating
bulletShortness of breath, extreme difficulty breathing, coughing up blood
bulletSudden change in mental state or coma
bulletMuscle aches and pains


What Causes It?

Imbalance in the body's fluid transfer can be caused by the following.


bulletSitting or standing for long periods
bulletCertain medications
bulletHormonal changes during menstruation and pregnancy
bulletInfection or injury to a blood vessel; blood clots; varicose veins
bulletAllergies to food or insect bites
bulletKidney, heart, liver, or thyroid disease
bulletHigh or low blood pressure; high salt intake
bulletBrain tumor or head injury
bulletExposure to high altitudes or heat, especially when combined with heavy physical exertion


What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

Your health care provider will look for varicose veins, blood clots, wounds, or infections. An X ray, computed tomography scan, magnetic resonance imaging, urine test, or blood test may be necessary. Edema caused by organ failure or high altitude sickness may require hospitalization.

Treatment Options

Treatment Plan

Treatment of edema varies depending on the underlying disease or disorder. In addition to drugs that your health care provider prescribes, the following can help to reduce swelling.


bulletComplete Decongestive Therapy (CDT)—compression bandages and "sleeves" are tightened over swollen limbs to help force fluid through other channels for reabsorption by the body
bulletSalt reduction diet
bulletDaily exercise
bulletResting with legs above the heart level
bulletWearing support hose


Drug Therapies



bulletMedication for your underlying disorder—consult your provider
bulletDiuretics—for example, loop diuretics or potassium-sparing diuretics; reduce body fluid levels but also deplete important vitamins and minerals, which can result in loss of bone mass; various other possibly serious side effects
bulletMorphine—reduces congestion and anxiety with pulmonary edema


Over the Counter


Surgical Procedures

Surgery may be required to remove fat and fluid deposits associated with a certain type of edema called lipedema, or to repair damaged veins or lymphatic glands to reestablish lymph and blood flow.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

The following nutritional and herbal support guidelines may help relieve edema, but the underlying cause must be addressed.



bulletEliminating food allergens from your diet decreases inflammation.
bulletA low-salt, high-protein diet may help edema. (However, you should not eat a high-protein diet if you have kidney disease.) You should also reduce your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates.
bulletIf you use diuretics, add more potassium to your diet.
bulletNatural diuretics: asparagus, parsley, beets, grapes, green beans, leafy greens, pineapple, pumpkin, onion, leeks, and garlic.
bulletVitamin B6 (50 to 100 mg per day) is a diuretic. The B vitamin thiamine may be supplemented (200 mg per day).
bulletVitamins C (1,000 to 1,500 mg 3 times per day), E (400 to 800 IU per day), and Coenzyme Q10 (50 to 100 mg 2 times per day)
bulletPotassium aspartate (20 mg per day) if you are using diuretics
bulletMagnesium (200 mg two to three times per day) and calcium (1,000 mg per day) help maintain fluid exchange in the body.



Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Teas should be made with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 to 20 minutes for roots.

A herbal diuretic is are best taken as a cooled tea (4 to 6 cups per day), although a tincture may also be used (30 to 60 drops four times a day). Combine three of these herbs with equal parts of two to three additional herbs from the following categories, as indicated: cleavers (Gallium aparine), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), oatstraw (Avena sativa), elder (Sambucus canadensis), red clover (Trifolium pratense), and red root (Ceonothus americanus)

For cyclic edema, such as swelling from menstruation:


bulletGinkgo (Ginkgo biloba) strengthens the integrity of blood vessels.
bulletBilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a gentle diuretic.
bulletTopical applications of creams containing one or more of the following may help strengthen your blood vessels: horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), butcher's broom (Ruscus asuleatus), sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis), and rue (Ruta graveolens).



Homeopathy may be useful as a supportive therapy.

Physical Medicine


bulletDry skin brushing. Before bathing, briskly brush the entire skin surface with a rough washcloth, loofa, or soft brush. Begin at your feet and work up. Always stroke in the direction of your heart.
bulletCold compresses made with yarrow tea.
bulletContrast hydrotherapy involves alternating hot and cold applications. Alternate three minutes hot with one minute cold and repeat three times. This is one set. Do two to three sets per day.



Acupuncture may improve fluid balance.


Therapeutic massage can assist with lymph drainage.

Special Considerations

Excessive fluid retention during pregnancy (toxemia) is potentially dangerous to both you and your baby.

Supporting Research

Balch JF, Balch PA. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group; 1997.

Bartram T. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Dorset, England: Grace Publishers; 1995:73, 155, 156, 188.

Blumenthal M, ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs. Boston, Mass: Integrative Medicine Communications; 1998:424, 425, 429.

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Available at

MDX Health Digest. Available at

Mindell E, Hopkins V. Prescription Alternatives. New Canaan, Conn: Keats Publishing Inc; 1998.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Available at

Weiss RF. Herbal Medicines. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers, Ltd; 1988:188–191, 241.

Copyright © 2000 Integrative Medicine Communications

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.