First Time User? Enroll now.
*Vaccine availability and appointments* | Additional COVID-19 resources.
Please be aware that mask-wearing is required at all UNC Health facilities.
Home > Health Library > Swelling
Swelling is an increase in the size or a change in the shape of an area of the body. Swelling can be caused by collection of body fluid, tissue growth, or abnormal movement or position of tissue.
Most people will have swelling at some time. When it is hot and you have stood or sat in the same position for a long time, you might notice swelling in your feet and ankles. Staying in one position for any length of time increases the risk that the lower legs, feet, or hands will swell because body fluid will normally move down a limb from the effects of gravity. Swelling can also be caused by heat-related problems, such as heat edema from working or being active in a hot environment.
Body fluid can collect in different tissue spaces of the body (localized) or can affect the whole body (generalized). Causes of localized swelling include:
Causes of generalized swelling include:
Some people may experience swelling as a reaction to a medical treatment, procedure, or surgery. Swelling from a medical treatment may be related to the procedure or to a substance, such as dye, used during the procedure. Swelling may occur at an intravenous (IV) site used during a procedure or at an IV site used for medicines given at home. Some swelling at the site of surgery is normal, such as swelling of the arm after a mastectomy. Lymphedema is swelling that occurs in an area around lymph nodes that have been removed (such as following surgery) or injured (such as following radiation treatments).
Swelling can also be caused by the fluctuation of hormone levels within the body. Some women may notice swelling from retaining fluid during their menstrual cycles. This may be called cyclical edema because it is related to the menstrual cycle. Some women experience mild swelling in their hands or feet during pregnancy. Swelling in the feet may be more noticeable in the third trimester of the pregnancy. Generalized swelling can be a sign of a pregnancy-related problem called preeclampsia. For more information, see the topic Pregnancy-Related Problems.
Swelling can occur when tissues move out of their normal position, such as hernias in the abdomen. For more information, see the topic Inguinal Hernia.
Most of the time swelling is mild and goes away on its own. You may not even know what caused the swelling. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve mild symptoms.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
Pain in adults and older children
Swelling can be a sign that you are having an allergic reaction to a medicine. This can happen with almost any medicine.
Many prescription and nonprescription medicines also may cause swelling as a side effect. A few examples are:
Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:
Severe trouble breathing means:
Moderate trouble breathing means:
Mild trouble breathing means:
Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) may include:
A severe reaction can be life-threatening. If you have had a bad allergic reaction to a substance before and are exposed to it again, treat any symptoms as an emergency. Even if the symptoms are mild at first, they may quickly become very severe.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Mild swelling will usually go away on its own. Home treatment may help relieve symptoms.
Swelling and pain are very common with injuries. When you have swelling, you should look for other symptoms of injury that may need to be evaluated by your doctor.
If you have a medical condition that may cause swelling, follow your doctor's instructions on how to treat your swelling.
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
The following tips may help prevent swelling.
If you have a chronic medical condition or are pregnant, follow your doctor's instructions on how to prevent swelling and when to call to report your symptoms.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topicMaking the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
Current as of:
July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Current as of: July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2021 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.