KidsMD Health Topics


  • Edema refers to swelling in the body’s tissues caused by a build up of fluid, most often in the feet, ankles, face, eyelids or abdomen.

    It can have many causes, including:

    • sitting or standing in one position for too long
    • eating salty food
    • some medications
    • sunburn

    It can also be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as:

    How Boston Children’s Hospital treats edema

    The multidisciplinary nature and pediatric expertise of Boston Children’s means that our health care teams are able to quickly and efficiently diagnose and treat edema in children, no matter what its cause. Your child is in good hands with us.


    Edema refers to swelling in the body's tissues caused by a build up of fluid, most often in the feet, ankles, face, eyelids or abdomen. If your child exhibits any of these symptoms, contact your primary care physician.

    General Pediatrics
    Boston Children's Hospital

    300 Longwood Avenue
    Boston, MA 02115


  • What causes edema?

    Many conditions associated with edema means that it has many causes, too. Here are some ways that conditions could cause edema:

    Liver disease

    A healthy liver helps to regulate the level of fluid in the body. If the liver is damaged, it may not be able to do this, leading to fluid build-up.

    Kidney disease

    The kidneys may not be able to eliminate enough fluid from your child’s body.

    Heart disease

    Edema related to heart disease can be associated with

    Since your child’s body depends on her heart to pump blood to her organs, poor cardiac function can cause edema in several ways:

    • If your child’s heart, for whatever reason, isn’t pumping blood efficiently, blood can build up in the parts of her body furthest from the heart, such as the legs, ankles and feet.
    • This puts increased pressure on the tiny blood vessels called capillaries which may begin to leak blood into the surrounding tissues, causing swelling.
    • Because of the poor heart function, the kidneys sense less blood fluid available, and begin to conserve water and sodium.
    • Also, without sufficient blood supply, the kidneys have a harder time doing their job of ridding the body of excess fluid.
    • Eventually, this excess fluid builds up in the lungs.

    What are the other symptoms of edema?

    Aside from the actual swelling, you or your child may notice your child:

    • feeling tired after minimal physical exertion, like climbing stairs
    • gaining weight
    • having trouble breathing
    • with a cough that gets worse at night or when she is lying down. This may be a sign of acute pulmonary edema, or excessive fluid in the lungs, which requires emergency treatment.
  • Edema itself is not hard to diagnose. Your child’s physician will ask about her medical history, as well as about her eating and drinking habits to see how much sodium (which causes the body to retain water) she consumes.

    The physician will also look at the swollen area(s), and check to see if the skin appears stretched and shiny. Pushing gently on the swollen area for about 15 seconds will often leave a dimple.

    The doctor may want to order some lab tests to see what is causing the edema. These might include:

    • urine test
    • blood tests

    An imaging test, such as a chest x-ray, may also provide information about what is causing the swelling.

  • Treating your child's underlying disorder will often take care of the edema, too. Your child's healthcare team may also recommend:

    • diuretics – medicine that rids the body of extra fluid through urination
    • limiting the amount of salt in the child's water, to discourage water retention
    • avoiding very hot and very cold temperatures, and also sudden temperature changes
    • elevating the swollen body part above the heart for a half hour or so
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