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Edema and Swelling
March 2003

Q. I am a registered nurse. Recently one of our physicians mentioned to one of our nurses that what they were describing was not edema but swelling. He is an excellent teacher and when the nurse asked him to differentiate what was considered to be edema and what was swelling, he suggested that we try to find out. I have found information about edema but not much that separates the definition between edema and swelling. Can you please help?

A. There is certainly room for confusion on your question. Edema is an accumulation of fluid due to fluid excess in the body. A number of disease processes can cause this. A common example would be the edema that occurs in congestive heart failure, causing fluid accumulation in the lower legs and ankles. Edema can also occur with diseases of the kidney.

Swelling is a local fluid accumulation but does not represent a total body excess of fluid. Any localized process of injury or inflammation, such as an ankle sprain or a tissue infection, can cause localized swelling. As a clinician, when you observe fluid, the common denominator here, you must then decide the cause and significance, and whether treatment is needed!



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