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What Is Dropsy?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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More commonly known today as edema in the United States and oedema in the United Kingdom, dropsy is the accumulation of large amounts of excess fluid below the surface of the skin or in some cavity of the body. Inflammation is often one of the underlying causes for this condition and can occur just about anywhere in the body. Fortunately, the condition is treatable in most situations, unless complications from a concurrent health problem arise.

One of the leading causes of the development of dropsy has to do with the condition of the blood vessels. For example, if there is some type of obstruction in the vessels running through a leg, this will lead to a drop in the oncotic pressure with the vessel system. Fluid will begin to build up, leading to swelling in the leg and possibly the ankle. Locating and eliminating the obstruction can allow the proper amount of pressure to resume and thus alleviate the pain in the swollen region.

Along with swelling in the legs and ankles, dropsy may also occur in the hands and feet. In addition to some sort of blockage in the blood vessels, there is also the chance that the fluid retention is taking place due to problems with the liver or other ailments such as pancreatitis. The hand or the foot may begin to appear somewhat puffy, and it may become somewhat difficult to bend the fingers or wiggle the toes. A physician can normally determine the origin of the problem and use medication to help alleviate the swelling.

Dropsy can also take place due to fluid accumulation in the soft tissue or in organs that people normally assume would not retain fluid. This includes organs such as the brain or the eyes. People suffering with glaucoma are at a higher risk to retain excess fluid in the cornea. The presence of lupus is thought to increase the potential for fluid retention in the brain, resulting in the individual experiencing more periods of drowsiness that may in turn lead to losing consciousness from time to time.

Fortunately, a qualified physician can often identify the type and origin of dropsy with relative ease. In most cases, the condition will begin to subside once the underlying cause is addressed and effectively treated. Depending on what areas of the body, including the internal organs, are involved with the condition, the treatments may provide quick results. However, if the underlying cause is connected with a severe health condition, it may take more time to treat dropsy effectively.

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of Dropsy?

The symptoms of dropsy or edema can appear slowly or suddenly. You’ll typically notice a change in the appearance of your skin. The area might look swollen, red, and shiny.

Patients also often see a change in their weight and experience discomfort in the area with swelling. Veins can become apparent in that area.

As fluids build up in the skin or other tissues, other parts of your body might become dehydrated. You might notice that you’re urinating or sweating less often. You might feel dizzy and tired and experience dry mouth or dry eyes.

If the edema is affecting the eyes or brain, it’s possible to experience vision changes.

There’s a simple test you can do to determine if you’re suffering from dropsy. Apply pressure to the swollen area with your finger. If there is fluid retention, the skin will retain a dimple for a few seconds before regaining its shape.

Are There Any Risk Factors for Developing Edema?

There is a strong connection between fluid buildup and a lack of movement. If you spend long hours sitting without moving, pressure will increase in your blood vessels and cause swelling in the feet or legs.

Many people experience swelling during air travel. Spending hours sitting on a plane can cause your leg veins to start leaking fluid.

Pregnant women and the elderly are also more likely to develop this condition. With age, veins often become weaker and can leak fluids more easily.

Pregnant women are at risk because their body is retaining more water and sodium to support the development of the fetus. These changes can result in fluid retention in other parts of the body.

Some women also experience mild edema as part of their premenstrual symptoms due to hormonal imbalances causing water retention.

Your diet is another major risk factor. Foods rich in salt cause your body to retain water. A diet that’s too rich in sodium can lead to recurring edema. Some patients also develop dropsy due to a severe protein deficiency.

Dropsy can result from complications from surgery or from a medication you’re taking. High blood pressure treatment, diabetes medication, anti-inflammatory drugs, and estrogen can cause fluid retention.

How Do Doctors Diagnose Dropsy?

Your healthcare provider will examine the area where you’re experiencing swelling. They’ll also perform a pitting test by applying pressure to the area to see how quickly the skin regains its shape. If a dimple remains, it’s a sign that you’re experiencing fluid retention.

For internal edemas that affect the lungs, brain, or other tissues, a medical professional will use imagery to detect swelling.

Can You Treat Dropsy?

In most cases, edemas will keep swelling for the first two days before decreasing by the third day. Mild cases will typically go away on their own, but you can use a mix of movement, elevation, and compression to alleviate the symptoms. Reducing your sodium intake can also help.

Your doctor might also prescribe diuretics to help your body flush the accumulated fluids.

If edemas are a recurring issue, you’ll need a treatment plan for the underlying medical cause. Your doctor might also switch your medication if fluid retention is a side effect of a treatment you’re taking.

Can Edemas Cause Complications?

Complications can occur if you don’t take steps to manage the swelling and reduce fluid retention:

  • As more fluids pool in the area, you’ll experience increased swelling and discomfort.
  • Swelling can restrict your movements and make it hard to walk, especially if you’re experiencing swelling in the feet and legs.
  • Because fluid is pooling and not circulating, there’s an increased risk of developing an infection.
  • The swelling can cause damage to nearby veins, joints, and muscles.
  • Skin ulcers can appear if the skin remains stretched for a long period.

Is It Dropsy or Something Else?

Dropsy isn’t the only condition that causes swelling:

  • Swelling can indicate the presence of heart failure. This condition appears due to inflammation in tissue near the heart.
  • A varicose vein can also cause swelling. You’ll often be able to see an enlarged vein in the legs or feet.
  • Decreased protein in blood vessels can lead to fluid easily leaking from them.
  • Diseases in the liver that cause scarring can result in fluid building up in the abdomen.
  • The sudden onset of swelling can indicate an insect bite or severe allergic reaction.
The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including The Health Board, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon249863 — On Feb 23, 2012

My partner has now got a large mars bar size swelling in her leg after falling into my parked wheelchair. Will this clear over time?

By GardenTurtle — On Oct 19, 2010

@schooner: I also am no medical professional but I would suggest you see your doctor as soon as you can. My husband had swelling in his hands, legs, and feet for no reason that we could think of. He had not been injured, had no history of arthritis or any other medical condition that we knew of that could cause the swelling.

He finally decided he would go to the doctor. After many tests, he was diagnosed as having congestive heart failure. We had no idea that it would be anything like that. He is now on medications, one being a diuretic. He is now doing much better but has had to make some lifestyle changes.

By BoatHugger — On Oct 19, 2010

@schooner: There are many reasons that you may have swelling in your feet and hands. I am certainly no doctor, but I suffer from the same symptoms. I took some over the counter water pills because I thought that I was just retaining fluid but it just made me urinate all the time without relieving my swelling.

I finally went to the doctor and was diagnosed with arthritis. The swelling was caused by joint inflammation. I am now on an anti-inflammatory medication and the swelling has significantly decreased.

By schooner — On Sep 12, 2010

I've got swelling in my hands and ankles. What might be the reasons for this? It appeared about two weeks ago.

My appointment will be made to my doctor come this


Thanks and God bless you all.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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