Edema is another word for fluid retention. You most often see edema expressed as swelling in the legs and ankles, although you might also notice puffiness in your face, neck, or hands as well. Some degree of swelling and edema is common in pregnancy. Your body produces more fluid when you’re pregnant and fluid tends to shift from the blood vessels into the tissues of your body. You often see swelling in the ankles and calves during the late second and third trimester of pregnancy as the weight of the expanding uterus puts pressure on the veins that carry blood and fluid back to the heart.
In most cases, swelling and edema during are nothing to worry about. Almost all women will experience it to some degree during pregnancy. However, in some cases, edema can be a sign of health problems. For example, if you have edema along with a headache and blurred vision, you could be suffering from a condition called preeclampsia. With preeclampsia, you also have an elevation in blood pressure. It typically shows up after 20 weeks of pregnancy and can be fatal. In general, you should worry about swelling if you have other symptoms like shortness of breath, headache, blurred vision, pain in a swollen area, or distended or painful blood vessels in the area. You should also be concerned about swelling that comes on suddenly.
Another red flag is swelling in only ONE leg. If you have swelling in one leg only, it could be a blood clot. Blood clots are dangerous because part of it can dislodge and move to the lungs where it can interfere with air exchange and lead to death. Due to hormonal changes, blood clots are more common during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester, and need immediate evaluation. Always let your doctor know if you have swelling greater on one side more than the other. You’re at higher risk of developing a blood clot if you smoke, are overweight, have a family history of blood clots, sit for prolonged periods of time, or are over the age of 35. Always tell your health care provider if you have a family history of blood clots.
What can you do to ease the swelling, assuming it’s not due to something more serious? Here are some tips:
- Avoid standing or sitting outside in the heat or for prolonged periods of time.
- Cut back on sodium and eat more potassium-rich fruits and vegetables.
- Take a brisk 30-minute walk daily to reduce your risk of blood clots.
- Stay well hydrated. Being dehydrated places you at higher risk of a blood clot.
- Wear comfortable shoes, ones that can expand to accommodate the swelling.
- When you’re sitting, prop your feet up so they’re higher than your heart.
The Bottom Line
Edema in pregnancy isn’t typically a cause for concern as long as you have no other symptoms and the swelling isn’t on one side only. Still, it’s a good idea to let your doctor know if you’re experiencing it. Also, take the six steps mentioned to reduce the amount of edema you experience.
American Pregnancy Association. “Swelling During Pregnancy”
Mayo Clinic. “Preeclampsia”
Edema in pregnancy – how common is it? More importantly, what can you do about it? This article discusses why you develop edema when you’re pregnant and tips for dealing with it.