If you've noticed parts of your body suddenly become swollen and puffy, it's probably not weight gain, but water retention.
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Edema can happen to anyone, but those most at risk include people who are pregnant and older adults. Luckily, treatment can be as simple as lifestyle changes or making changes to your medications.
Here, Samuel Mathis, MD, a board-certified family medicine doctor with UTMB Health, explains the causes of water retention and how to treat it.
What Is Water Retention?
Water retention, aka edema or fluid retention, is swelling caused by fluid buildup. "This swelling then causes that part of the body to become bigger and puffy due to the excess water in the area," Dr. Mathis says.
The body has a complex system to control fluid levels, but the kidneys are the main organ in control of water retention. Their job is to filter blood and maintain fluid levels in the body, per the Mayo Clinic.
Water Weight vs. Water Retention
You may have heard the common phrase "water weight" when referring to weight gain or water retention after exercise. According to Dr. Mathis, water weight and water retention are essentially the same thing.
"Water weight is another term used to describe fluid that stays in the body instead of being filtered out by the kidneys," he says.
Causes of Water Retention
The most common causes of water retention include the following, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Sitting in one position too long
- Eating too much salt
- Hormone changes
- Certain medications, like taking diuretics to manage high blood pressure.
Dr. Mathis says there are certain underlying conditions that can cause water retention, too, including:
- Heart failure: When the heart can no longer efficiently pump blood, swelling occurs in the lower extremities — i.e., the legs, ankles and feet. Eventually, fluid buildup will occur in the lungs as well.
- Kidney disease: Kidneys are responsible for filtering blood and controlling fluid levels. If that's compromised, edema occurs.
- Poor circulation: Issues with circulation can result in water retention and swelling due to fluid buildup.
Symptoms of Water Retention
Water retention can make you feel heavier and puffier than normal. "The most common symptoms are swelling in the feet, legs, hands or occasionally the abdomen," Dr. Mathis says.
"This swelling causes pitting or indentations in the legs when pushed down or compressed (like with socks)," he adds.
Other symptoms of fluid retention can include the following, per Dr. Mathis:
- Shortness of breath (if fluid builds up in the lungs)
Remedies for Water Retention
In some cases, water retention can go away on its own. But if you're actively trying to reduce it, there are some natural remedies for fluid buildup that can help, Dr. Mathis says. He recommends:
If the swelling is in your legs, you can also try gentle exercises for swollen feet and ankles.
"Other ways to help improve swelling may include talking with your physician about medications that improve the kidney's ability to get rid of the extra fluid," Dr. Mathis says.
4 Tips to Prevent Water Retention
In some cases, water retention is preventable. With proper lifestyle and dietary changes, it's possible to avoid it altogether. Here are some tips:
1. Stay HydratedGood Evidence
The easiest way to prevent water retention is through maintaining proper hydration, Dr. Mathis says. "When we are slightly dehydrated, the body holds on to any extra water," he explains. To combat that: "Aim to drink 60 to 80 ounces of water a day unless on fluid restrictions by your doctor."
2. ExerciseGood Evidence
Another strategy Dr. Mathis suggests to keep swelling in check is to exercise regularly. Exercise utilizes your muscles to push the water out of your tissues and back into your veins where it belongs.
3. Limit Salt and SugarGood Evidence
While you don't have to completely write off salt and sugar, limiting these two ingredients can help reduce the amount of water your body holds on to.
Foods that cause water retention include:
- Cured, smoked or canned meat and fish
- Deli meats
- Canned soups and vegetables
- Prepackaged/frozen meals
- Baked goods
- Salty snacks like chips and pretzels
"These foods can cause fluid retention and inflammation in the body," Dr. Mathis adds.
4. Try SupplementsSome Evidence
There is a little research to suggest certain supplements and medicinal herbs can help reduce swelling, but you should always talk to your doctor before trying anything new in this area.
Some supplements that may be able to help reduce swelling, per Dr. Mathis, include dandelion root, magnesium and B vitamins, all of which can play a role in managing the amount of fluid in our bodies.
Talk to your doctor before trying any over-the-counter vitamins or supplements, especially if you are currently taking any medication. They can help you determine what supplements are right for you.
When to See a Doctor
If your swelling does not improve after a few days, or after trying the above remedies and prevention strategies, you should seek medical care to establish the cause and find ways to get your swelling under control.
It's possible you may have an underlying condition causing the swelling, which your doctor would be able to diagnose and treat.
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