Swollen legs can be a sign presents in certain medical conditions that are potentially life threatening. It is important to assess if the swelling is due to fluid buildup (edema) or inflammation. Inflammation is typically accompanied by pain and redness, and edema can be associated with cough, shortness of breath, and tiredness. The following are potential causes for leg swelling that may require medical attention:
Cellulitis/skin infection: Infection that happens when bacteria like streptococcus and staphylococcus get in through a crack in your skin. More common in one leg at time localized to the lower legs accompanied by redness, warmth, scaly skin, and pain.
Arthritis/Joint problems: Osteoarthritis, gout, or rheumatoid arthritis could be a cause of leg swelling typically starting at the joint and spreading outward. It is accompanied by joint stiffness, pain to the touch, and pain with joint movement.
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT): A blood clot formation in a deep vein of the leg, rarely involving both legs at the same time. This condition can be life threatening if a clot breaks off and lodges in the lungs. Superficial thrombophlebitis is similar, but the clots form closer to the surface of the skin and aren’t likely to break off. This is typically accompanied by calf tenderness, redness, or a tinge of blue on the skin.
Congestive Heart Failure: This happens when your heart is too weak to pump all the blood your body needs. It leads to fluid buildup (edema), especially in your legs. This is an important cause to consider when there is swelling of both legs at the same time. Other symptoms include shortness of breath especially when lying flat, tiredness, cough, and blood-tinged phlegm.
Keep in mind that mild swelling of the legs after prolonged standing is very common and not typically severe. Additionally, be sure to check with your medical provider about medication side effects as leg swelling can occur in some cases.
This article reviewed by Dr. Jim Liu, MD and Ms. Deb Dooley, APRN.
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April 8, 2023