Water retention, called “edema”, refers to excess fluid that is improperly stored in the muscles and other organs of the body. The main causes of water retention are a sodium-heavy diet and lifestyles in which sitting and standing for many hours in a row is common. The main symptom of water retention is the swelling of extremities and puffiness in the abdomen and face. The main treatment for water retention is lifestyle changes, like increasing movement and altering diet.
Monitoring water retention is important as hydration levels are vital indicators of potential medical complications and general physical health. Water retention is risky, as it contributes to major discomfort with mobility and is associated with serious health conditions such as cardiovascular failure, malignant lymphedema, or kidney disease.
Water retention is a fairly common disease in the world because there are so many underlying reasons for the condition. Because of the many varying causes and often temporary nature of the disease, medical studies have not provided exact data on its prevalence. Sometimes, water retention is associated with weight, as the body adjusts to the potential dietary changes that come with weight loss or weight gain.
Edema is caused by nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, with vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B-6, magnesium, and zinc being common vitamins and minerals that have an effect on symptoms. Other times, edema is affected by behavioral habits; the way a person physically moves and exercises and how they massage their muscles has a significant impact on the presence or severity of the disease.
What Are the Causes of Water Retention?
The causes of water retention include numerous diseases plus some lifestyle issues. This is a list of some of the most important causes of edema (known as hydropsy and water retention).
- Too much salt in my diet. Excess salt in the body disrupts the body’s water balance and can result in fluid storage in the muscles.
- Certain medications. Hormonal medications, diabetic medications, and many other types of prescription medications may affect fluid retention and cause edema.
- Kidney disease. Improper functioning of the liver can cause fluid buildup, including from diseases like glomerulonephritis and nephrotic syndrome.
- Lack of movement. Sitting too long can make it harder for the blood to circulate from the legs back up to the heart.
- Cancer. Malignant tumors on the muscles and lymph nodes can cause edema.
- Heart failure. If the heart is not able to pump blood as normal it will try to make up for the poor circulation by increasing the amount of blood it is circulating through the body. This causes the liver, body cavities, and legs among other locations to swell.
- Chronic lung disease. When fluid builds up in the lungs, it is called pulmonary edema. There is a circular effect from emphysema (damaged air sacs in the lungs) causing shortness of breath that causes the heart to pump harder, which then creates pressure from blood vessels that pushes fluid into the lungs and makes breathing even more difficult.
- Liver disease. Liver disease such as cirrhosis makes it more difficult for the organ to function, slowing blood flow. This causes increased pressure in the veins which can lead to fluid buildup in the legs.
- Malignant lymphoedema. If cancer cells cause blockages in the lymphatic system, lymph fluid can back up in the body.
- Hormonal changes. Hormones are responsible for maintaining balance in the body, and so if there are disruptions to one’s hormones or a condition in the thyroid (the gland that produces many hormones), hydration levels may be affected and water retention is more likely to occur.
- Thyroid disease. Severe cases of hypothyroidism are called myxedema and can have numerous serious symptoms including major fluid retention and swelling, particularly in the legs and face.
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Hormonal changes surrounding PMS impact how fluid is stored in the body and can cause swelling.
- Arthritis. The affected joints from arthritis will often swell with water, which often makes moving the affected joints even more difficult and painful.
- Allergic reaction. An allergic reaction is an underlying reason behind some people’s edema. A major allergic reaction often causes immediate inflammation and bloating, but smaller allergies may cause more mild but still noticeable swelling and edema.
- Autoimmune diseases such as lupus. Lupus prevents the kidneys from functioning properly, leading to fluid buildup that can cause water retention and swelling.
- Substantial changes in air pressure. Air pressure affects how the body stores water, so plane rides may be one reason for water retention.
What Are the Symptoms of Water Retention?
Data from Dr. Kathryn P. Trayes and colleagues at Thomas Jefferson University indicates that the following are the symptoms of water retention.
- Swelling. Particularly in the fingers, toes, ankles. The medical terms “edema” and “lymphedema” are typically used to refer to this swelling in feet, ankles, and lower legs that is due to fluid retention.
- Bloating. Particularly in the stomach and abdomen.
- Puffiness. The cheeks, eyes, or entire face may be puffy in appearance and to the touch because of water retention.
- Stiffness and muscle pain. Water retention often makes the affected body parts feel stiffer, and it may become painful to move the affected areas.
- Fatigue and lethargy. The excess water from edema may cause significant fatigue and lethargy, as the muscles become heavier and more sensitive.
How to Diagnose Fluid Retention?
To diagnose fluid retention you typically require a medical consultation as doctors are best able to identify what is causing the symptoms. This is to better develop a treatment and monitoring plan that is effective for the specific needs of the patient. If you suspect you or someone you know has edema, there are two steps for diagnosing it.
- Perform a self-test. You can determine if your body is retaining too much fluid with a simple at-home test, as demonstrated by Evan Matthews, Ph.D., in the video below. Press down on the bloated skin. If your finger leaves an impression that remains for a few seconds, your body is indeed swollen and retaining too much fluid. While the symptom is diagnosed at home, only physicians can diagnose the cause.
- Consult with a physician. A doctor will administer the same ‘poke’ test during an examination. Dr. Trayes states that medical professionals will take note of “the location, timing, and extent of the pitting [the term used to describe the indent left on the skin after pressing] to determine treatment response” (Trayes et. al, 2013).
Since fluid retention is an indication of a very serious medical issue, it is imperative to consult with a doctor to discover the underlying cause if you notice this symptom in yourself. The most common mistake while diagnosing water retention is underplaying the seriousness of the condition. A doctor should explore all potential reasons for the fluid retention and patients should follow up with doctors if their edema worsens or does not see improvement after the treatment for their specific diagnosis has begun.
So, why am I retaining water? According to Dr. James O’Brien, “the condition may indicate an underlying life-threatening disease such as congestive heart failure, or it may be caused by something as benign as sitting for too long” (O’Brien 2005). In other words, sometimes you are retaining water for lifestyle choices that are easily resolved or undone, while other times you are retaining water because of diseases that must be treated by medical professionals.
What Are the Treatments for Water Retention?
The treatments for water retention are typically these methods.
- Controlling salt consumption
- Adding magnesium to the daily diet
- Adding potassium to the daily diet
- Consuming b-6 supplements
- Consuming more protein
- Use compression socks
- Consume dandelion
- Don't consume refined carbs
- Implement self-treatment for fluid retention
- Seek medical care from doctor
Three of the most efficient methods for treating water retention are reducing salt intake, increasing magnesium in your diet, and using compression socks. Reduced salt intake takes some discipline in knowing and planning your diet, but depending on the cause of edema it can get to the root problem within a few weeks. Adding magnesium is simplest by taking supplements, but depending on the underlying cause may again help to treat the root issue behind the water retention within a few months. Compression socks may not deal with the underlying edema causes, but they can provide immediate, inexpensive relief from discomfort while deeper solutions are sought.
1. Controlling Salt Consumption
Controlling salt consumption is one of the best treatments for water retention, as fluid retention is typically due to high salt concentrations in the body. A 2013 study from the University of Göteborg in Sweden found that 51% of test subjects on a diet including salt restrictions had seen improvements in their edema after 12 weeks. The results (plotted below) show a reduction in the number of patients reporting moderate to severe edema after their time on this diet, while those in the control group experienced little change in this symptom.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), people should receive a little less than 3,200 mg of sodium per day. The FDA advises: “As a general guide: 5% DV [daily value recommendation] or less of sodium per serving is considered low, and 20% DV or more of sodium per serving is considered high” (2021). Always look at nutritional labels to assess and regulate how much salt you are consuming per day.
High sodium levels are not only associated with fluid retention, they are closely associated with heart disease and high blood pressure. So controlling salt consumption is important to both fluid retention treatment and overall health.
Try to avoid foods with high sodium and salt content. This includes salted meats, processed cheeses, salty snacks, or dishes that heavily use soy sauce. Cutting back on these foods helps to reduce salt levels and restore the proper ratio of water to salt in the body.
2. Adding Magnesium to the Daily Diet
Adding magnesium to your daily diet can effectively treat water retention, particularly in those whose fluid retention symptoms are caused by premenstrual syndrome or other estrogen-specific hormonal changes. A clinical trial conducted by the Journal of Women’s Health found that when women were given 200 mg of magnesium supplement pills, most of their fluid retention symptoms – bloating in the abdomen, swelling of the breasts and extremities, and weight gain – were significantly decreased within two months.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended amount of magnesium people should receive daily in their diet is between 310-400 mg (2021). Magnesium-rich foods, such as those illustrated below, include cereals, yogurt, rice, black beans, and peanut butter. One of the best foods to eat is pumpkin seeds; a one-ounce serving provides approximately 37% of the magnesium you should receive daily. Chia seeds are great sources of magnesium, with a one-ounce serving providing approximately 26% of the magnesium you should receive daily.
3. Adding Potassium to the Daily Diet
Adding potassium to your daily diet is another easy way to treat water retention at home, as potassium helps process sodium (salt) out of the body. Eating foods high in potassium – such as bananas, sweet potato, spinach, avocados, and mushrooms (illustrated below) – reduces the bloating from fluid retention and “helps relax blood vessel walls, which helps lower blood pressure,” according to an article released by the American Heart Association in 2018.
The American Heart Association notes that “most women should get 2,600 milligrams of potassium a day and men 3,400 milligrams a day, but… on average, men eat about 3,000 mg/day, and women eat about 2,300 mg/day” (2018). They note that an average-sized banana contains 420 mg of potassium while a half cup of mashed sweet potato contains 475 mg, making these the ideal foods to incorporate into your daily diet to get the proper potassium.
4. Consuming Vitamin B-6 Supplements
Consuming vitamin B-6 supplements helps to treat water retention by providing the body with the proper tools to help build red blood cells. According to the National Institute of Health recommendations in 2021, both men and women aged 19-50 should receive about 1.3 mg of Vitamin B-6 per day, and individuals over 50 should receive around 1.5 mg per day.
Studies show that most Americans are indeed meeting this requirement. Therefore, it is unlikely that a lack of the B-6 vitamin is what is causing edema in most people. But you can speak to your doctor to determine whether a B-6 deficiency is medically affecting your water retention levels. Be sure to discuss the issues with them before adding any new supplements to your diet.
5. Consuming More Protein
Consuming more proteins – such as meat, beans, leafy green vegetables, etc. – helps with treating water retention. In patients with liver disease, protein deficiency is common and may contribute to symptoms of edema, particularly in the lower extremities. According to the Gastroenterological Society of Australia, patients with chronic liver disease can manage their symptoms (including fluid retention symptoms) by incorporating low-salt, high-protein foods into their daily diet, such as the examples below.
6. Use Compression Socks
Compression socks are a helpful tool in treating water retention, as they relieve the symptom of swelling in the legs and feet by preventing blood from pooling there so it returns more quickly to the heart for circulation. Compression socks are one of the most common treatments for edema in the feet and ankles and are widely available at drugstores. They are normally worn all day but taken off to sleep at night. They can have a rapid positive effect to reduce discomfort as soon as worn, though they are not a long-term cure.
Dr. Chung Sim Lim from the Canadian Medical Association Journal does note that “stockings are generally safe to use, with relatively few complications;” “poorly fitting stockings can cause discomfort and, at worst, pressure necrosis,” so be sure to get properly fitted socks to avoid any additional and unintentional feet and ankle discomfort. Your doctor can provide advice on sizing, recommended compression level, and how long to use them.
7. Consume Dandelion
According to Helen West, a registered gastroenterology dietician in the UK, consuming dandelion extract ( known as “lion’s tooth”) may be helpful in treating fluid retention, as it is thought to be a natural diuretic with high levels of potassium. Those two aspects make it ideal for reducing salt levels in the body and flushing excess fluid through urination.
West does acknowledge that “there are only a few studies on its [dandelion’s] effects in people. one small human study found that taking a dandelion supplement increased the amount of urine produced in the five hours after taking the supplement” (2017). Because of the limited research into this treatment option, it is considered a more alternative, but perfectly safe, way to manage the symptoms of fluid retention. These are some of the benefits of consuming dandelion.
8. Don't Consume Refined Carbs
If possible, do not consume refined carbs (foods like pasta, bread, and other grains) in abundance if you want to treat water retention. While there is not much medical research on the connection between diets high in refined carbs and fluid retention, many nutritionists have identified these foods as common culprits for stomach and abdominal bloating. Additionally, these foods may have high sodium or salt contents, making them not ideal in the treatment of water retention.
9. Implement Self-Treatment for Fluid Retention
It is possible and safe to implement self-treatment for fluid retention to reduce the discomfort caused by excess water. Some additional at-home remedies include cardio exercises, massages, and soaking in an Epsom salt bath for 15-20 minutes. These additional remedies relieve some of the discomfort associated with water retention by improving circulation and easing muscle pain.
10. Seek Medical Care from a Doctor
Seek medical care from your doctor for fluid retention immediately if you do not notice any improvement after implementing these treatments. Additionally, if the bothersome symptoms of fluid retention have worsened or increased, seek medical attention right away.
It is always important to know the underlying cause for your fluid retention, as sometimes it is fairly harmless and easily reversible, but other times it is a sign of disease progression, which can quickly become dangerous.
What Are the Different Methodologies for Water Retention Treatment?
These are the different methodologies for water retention treatment.
- Self-treatment. This includes dietary alterations like cutting out salts and adding proteins, self-administered physical therapies like leg elevations or massages, and at-home symptom management treatments like Epsom salt baths or compression socks.
- Seek help from a doctor. A diagnosis and/or prescription for the medication needed for the specific cause of the edema is one of the most important and recommended methodologies for treatment. Doctors may suggest or refer you to specialists like physical therapists, who can aid the treatment of water retention.
- Seek help from a pharmacist. If you are unable to reach a doctor, a pharmacist may be able to provide interim advice on either self-treatment or possible over-the-counter medications.
- Consume herbs against edema. The most common alternative medicinal treatment and methodology for fluid retention is consuming dandelion and other herbs. This methodology is not as medically studied as the others, but some claim this approach is beneficial.
- Use drugs that the doctor gives. If a doctor suggests medication, it is likely that it is a better methodology for the edema treatment than any alternative or at-home approach.
How to reduce water retention fast? The fastest way to reduce water retention is to hydrate as you stop consuming salt. If this is the underlying cause for your edema, these actions will have an effect that is noticeable within a few hours. If the edema is not related to salt consumption, there is not one guaranteed quick and easy fix for this condition and a doctor’s consultation is important.
Which one is better for solving water retention problems? The best methodology is getting help from professionals because they have the expertise to develop a specific solution for edema that will be best for you.
What Are the Herbs for Water Retention Treatment?
The herbs for water retention treatment include parsley, horsetail, calyces, caraway, and black or green tea. The best herbs for edema have properties similar to diuretics or potassium. They may either cause excretion or otherwise quicken how salt is flushed out from the body. These are some of the more common herbs used for edema treatment, as described by registered dietician Helen West.
- Parsley. Some studies involving rats showed that parsley aids in increased urine production, which is helpful with fluid retention. It is made into tea and consumed daily.
- Horsetail. Made from the plant “equisetum arvense,” Helen West states that “one small study in 36 men found that horsetail was as effective as the diuretic medication hydrochlorothiazide” and is available as both a pill and as a tea. West does advise that patients with kidney problems avoid consuming horsetail frequently, as it may actually worsen their condition.
- Calyces (from hibiscus plants). According to Helen West, this part of the hibiscus plant has “commonly been used to make a medicinal tea called ‘roselle’ or ‘sour tea.’” This tea, while not extensively studied, is said to reduce hypertension and treat mild edema.
- Caraway. Often used as a spice in cooking, caraway is derived from a feathery plant of the same name. Again, there is not much evidence for the effect caraway has on edema, but it is often used as a diuretic medicine in Morocco and India.
- Green or black tea. Because of the caffeine content, both green and black tea may serve as diuretics. Helen West warns that this is only an effective treatment for those who do not already have a tolerance for caffeine, as it would take a much larger (and likely unhealthy) amount of tea to see results.
In the video below, Dr. Eric Berg discusses a number of these herbal diuretics for treating water retention, as well as uva ursi, garlic, and stinging nettle root, and how you can incorporate them into your routine.
What Are the Drugs for Water Retention Treatment?
The drugs for water treatment are usually diuretics, a type of medicine that increases urination. Diuretics are both prescribed and found over-the-counter. According to the Mayo Clinic, diuretics are classified into three categories.
- Thiazide. Including chlorthalidone and hydrochlorothiazide. These lower blood pressure as they work as a diuretic.
- Loop. Including torsemide and furosemide. These are used for patients with chronic heart failure.
- Potassium sparing. Including amiloride and triamterene. These diuretics deplete less of the body’s natural potassium than other diuretics do.
What Are the Related Health Conditions for Water Retention?
These are the related health conditions for water retention. Note that some common health conditions do not necessarily cause edema, but rather include edema and fluid retention as a symptom. The diagram below indicates some of the serious health conditions that might be indicated by water retention.
- Congestive heart failure. Water retention can occur when a weakened heart is not pumping blood efficiently through the body. According to the Mayo Clinic, this means excess blood may back up in the legs, ankles, and feet, leading to edema.
- Pregnancy. The additional weight in the abdomen puts pressure on the bladder and the legs, which may result in some fluid retention in the lower limbs, ankles, and feet.
- Allergic reactions. The swelling of the face and limbs is a common side effect of allergic reactions. difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, itchiness, hives, and red eyes are some other typical symptoms that occur.
- Recovery from surgery. The stress of surgery and its recovery, and the more limited movement that can often occur post-surgery, may temporarily cause edema.
- New medications. Sometimes a medication’s side effects include edema. If a new medicine is causing edema, consult with a doctor to see if the dosage is adjusted, or if an alternative medication is provided instead.
- Poor diet. A diet that is inconsistent and/or unhealthy puts an individual at risk of experiencing fluid retention.
- Venous insufficiency. A disease that “makes it hard for the veins to push blood back up to the heart,” and is often caused by chronic sitting/standing for long periods of time, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
What Are the Conditions That Affect Water Retention for Humans?
These are the conditions that affect water retention for humans, often causing stronger cases of edema, and classified according to the primary organ affected.
- Kidney Diseases. Conditions such as kidney failure, chronic kidney disease, and nephrotic syndrome have been associated with fluid retention in the face and lower limbs. The National Institute of Diabetes and Kidney Diseases explains that nephrotic syndrome is a medical condition in which the kidneys do not function properly. Nephrotic syndrome is diagnosed through a urine sample and some causes of the condition include diabetes, lupus, and HIV/AIDS.
- Cerebral Edema. Refers to a type of edema in which fluid is retained in the brain. Many conditions can cause this, including metabolic diseases, traumatic brain injuries, tumors, infections, and hypoxia (a condition defined as a lack of oxygen in the body).
- Cardiac Edema. Heart conditions such as cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, and high blood pressure are associated with fluid retention throughout the entire body, according to doctors at RWJBarnabas Health at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
- Pulmonary Edema. Refers to a buildup of fluid in the lungs, which is often caused by congestive heart failure. Severe injuries, kidney failure, major lung damage, and certain medications could potentially cause pulmonary edema, according to research from PennMedicine at Pennsylvania State University in Philadelphia.
- Hypothyroidism. A hormonal disease in which the thyroid is underactive, or not producing enough hormones that the body needs. The American Thyroid Association notes that the causes of hypothyroidism are varied but treatment is typically manageable. A common symptom of hypothyroidism is fluid retention in the limbs of the body. Myxedema is the medical term used for severe cases of hypothyroidism.
- Cirrhosis. known as late-stage liver disease. Cirrhosis is typically irreversible as healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue. Many underlying medical conditions can cause cirrhosis (including hepatitis and cancer), but the most common cause is prolonged alcohol use. Cirrhosis will eventually cause swelling and fluid retention throughout the whole body if the condition is not immediately and/or properly treated.
Can Physiologic Reasons Cause Water Retention?
Yes, physiologic reasons cause water retention. In fact, fluid retention as a result of venous insufficiency is common, with the National Library of Medicine reporting that anywhere between 1-40% of females and 1-17% of males report suffering from venous insufficiency. Venous insufficiency is often caused by people either standing or sitting for long periods of time daily, or from chronic smoking, a poor diet, or a lack of exercise. Venous insufficiency is associated with the appearance of varicose veins, pictured below, which often occur in the lower limbs as the extra fluid causes poor blood flow.
Can Water Retention Kill You?
Yes, water retention can kill you. There is a greater likelihood that water retention will be fatal if it is left undiagnosed and untreated for an extended period of time. The likelihood of death is dependent on the underlying causes of fluid retention. Patients with chronic kidney and cardiovascular diseases have a higher risk of fatality, especially if the water retention symptoms are significantly high or have worsened.
Medical researcher Kamyar Kalantar-Zadeh from the Harold Simmons Center for Kidney Disease Research and Epidemiology reports that there is a “28% death risk” for chronic kidney disease patients with significant fluid retention, whereas “with the minimal fluid retention [between 0.5 and 1.0 kg], there was 26% higher survival chance”. For cardiovascular failure patients, there was a “25% increased [death risk] and 23% decreased cardiovascular death risk for the above-mentioned fluid gain groups, respectively” (Zadeh 2014). If you have a serious health condition that causes fluid retention, be sure to closely monitor the severity of your edema as that information is helpful in treating the underlying issue.
Can Water Retention Cause Headaches?
Scientists are unsure whether water retention can cause headaches, but headaches have been a reported symptom in those who reported suffering from water retention. Researchers at the Department of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery in São José, Brazil say that “the possibility of the involvement of cyclic edema in hypnic headaches should be investigated,” so be sure to let your doctor know if headaches are one of the frequent symptoms you experience along with fluid retention.
Can Water Quality Affect Water Retention?
No, water quality can not affect water retention, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Most drinking water is completely safe to drink and no identified water contaminant has been shown to cause water retention. the US EPA still does not know much about the health effects of poor water quality, noting that “factors that can influence whether a contaminant will lead to health effects include the type of contaminant, its concentration in the water, individual susceptibility, the amount of water consumed, and the duration of exposure” (2020). So while it is possible that a contaminant in drinking water is contributing to fluid retention symptoms, it is highly unlucky as it has not yet been documented in research.
Can Drinking Too Much Water Cause Water Retention?
Yes, drinking too much water can cause water retention, but this is very rare. If you overhydrate to the point of mild water intoxication, you may notice some edema-like swelling due to the excess fluid in the body. This is discussed in further detail here by Dr. Amit Varma.
Decreasing water intake should help to decrease the swelling if drinking too much is the cause of swelling. It is likely that the fluid retention is due to another underlying cause, in which case decreasing water intake would not help and may even cause further harm. For this reason, it is important to always seek a medical diagnosis if you are worried about how much water is too much and experiencing symptoms of fluid retention. A doctor can help find a solution that works for you.
Can Decreasing Water Drinking Solve Water Retention?
Decreasing water drinking cannot solve water retention in most cases. Decreasing water intake can solve the problem of water retention only if it was caused by overhydration or water intoxication. Since dehydration is much more common across the population than overhydration, it is not advisable to decrease water intake in an attempt to treat edema or fluid retention unless specifically asked to do so by a doctor.
Can Water Retention Cause Extra Weight on the Body?
Yes, water retention can cause extra weight on the body, but for those wondering how to lose water weight, the extra weight is easily lost once the water retention issue is treated. The extra weight is the excess water that is stored in the muscle, so many people with chronic fluid retention experience noticeable weight fluctuations depending on the severity of the swelling and/or bloating.
Can PMS Cause Water Retention?
Yes, PMS can cause water retention. Water retention is a common symptom of PMS (premenstrual syndrome), as many people who menstruate experience hormonal changes before, during, and after their periods. The hormonal changes affect the way fluid is stored in the body, often causing bloating in the stomach and abdomen. Heating pads may cause some relief for those with fluid retention caused by PMS. Talk to your gynecologist if your PMS symptoms like swelling and bloating are too severe, as it could be a sign of an endocrine or hormonal disorder.