Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Answers to FAQs about swollen feet

2/28/2022 by Ryan Giddings Connolly, M.D.


Swollen feet aren't uncommon, but the swelling can be alarming. Why is this happening? Should you be concerned? Was it something you ate? Is it related to your medications? What can you do to get rid of it? 

Everyone experiences unwanted swelling to a certain degree, such as occasional sock marks — the indentation caused by the cuff of your socks at the end of the day. While you may not have paid much attention to this before, it may be the first manifestation of something more serious. 

Here are some answers to questions that come up about swollen feet. 

What is it?

"Edema" is the term used for fluid buildup in the tissues. 

Edema has two types: 

  • Generalized edema 
    This may be associated with many conditions, including heart, liver or kidney disease, sleep apnea, malnutrition, pregnancy or pre-menstruation, or allergic reaction. 
  • Localized edema 
    This type of edema is confined to one area. It may be related to deep vein thrombosis (blood clot), bacterial skin infections or leaky veins, as well as certain medications. It's important to notice if the swelling comes on quickly and it it's in one or both legs. Sudden onset in just one leg may be a sign of a blood clot. 

How do you know if you have edema?

Signs of edema include pitting, which is when a dent is left in the swollen area after sustained pressure; heavy legs; puffy arms; shiny or discolored skin; or swelling that improves while you sleep and returns during the day. 

What can you do?

In most cases, mild edema takes care of itself and requires nothing more than time. 

For edema that persists, try: 

  • Leg elevation 
    This involves raising your legs above the level of your heart. 
  • Compression 
    Wearing tight-fitting stockings that prevent fluid from accumulating in your legs in the first place. 
  • Movement 
    Pumping your muscles will help move fluid out of the legs. 
  • Salt reduction 
    Eating less salt (sodium) can affect edema. Processed, packaged and prepared foods tend to be high in sodium, since salt is a natural preservative and flavor enhancer. The American Heart Association suggests a maximum daily salt intake of 2,300 milligrams, which is equivalent to one teaspoon of salt daily. When possible, prepare your own meals and limit added salt.

When should you see your health care team?

It's never wrong to consult your care team if you notice new swelling. Your care team can identify causes for your swelling, review your medications and evaluate you for underlying conditions. This is especially important if you experience difficult breathing, significant weight gain, chest discomfort or progressive symptoms. 

Ryan Giddings Connolly, M.D., is a physician in Community Internal Medicine, Geriatrics and Palliative Care in Rochester. He earned his medical degree from Boston University and completed his residency training in internal medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. His interests include palliative medicine and medical education.