Water retention—sometimes called fluid retention or edema—is a common health issue with various causes. It can be temporary and mild, like after an airplane flight, or a symptom of a serious issue like heart or kidney failure.
Fluid can build up in body tissues outside of blood vessels and lead to swelling or bloating. Water retention can also happen in the stomach (ascites), lungs (pulmonary edema), or in the chest around the lungs (pleural effusion).
This article discusses the symptoms and water retention, how to treat it, and when to see your healthcare provider.
Symptoms of Water Retention
Much of the time, retained water collects in parts of the body closest to the ground (feet, ankles, and legs) if you are sitting or standing. However, fluid typically collects in parts of your body touching the bed if you mostly lie down.
Areas of fluid retention become swollen and puffy. It’s possible to push on an area of swelling and create a dent or a pit. If your body retains enough water, your skin may become tight, stretched, and even shiny.
Additional symptoms include:
- Shoes or clothing may become tight
- Rings, watches, or bracelets that become uncomfortable
- Elastic bands in socks or clothes that leave indented lines
- Heavy feeling in arms or legs from the extra weight of the water
- Feelings of fullness or bloating in the belly
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
You may need medical attention, especially if you have sudden or worsening water retention. A medical professional should evaluate for causes like heart failure, kidney disease, or infection right away.
Causes of Water Retention
There are many different causes of water retention. Sometimes lifestyle factors like diet and fluid intake are the cause, while st other times, edema can signify a serious medical condition.
Several different dietary choices can lead to fluid retention. Each person’s body reacts to these substances in food and drinks differently. You may want to record a food log and compare it to your edema symptoms to see if there are any patterns.
Consuming food and drinks with high levels of salt (sodium) can trigger your body to hold on to extra water. Some salt occurs naturally in food, but most comes from processed or packaged foods or restaurant meals.
The sodium recommendation for healthy Americans is 2,300 mg per day. The American Heart Association recommends individuals with underlying medical conditions that warrant a more severe sodium restriction take in a maximum of 1,500 mg of sodium per day.
When the kidneys are healthy, they collect waste products from the body and excrete them with fluid to make urine. Kidneys are also vital to balancing electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, etc.) dissolved in the blood.
When kidney function is reduced, it can be more difficult for them to regulate fluid balance and clear wastes. If the kidneys become too damaged, you may not be able to make urine and may require dialysis, a treatment that performs some of the functions of the kidneys.
Congestive Heart Failure
In people with congestive heart failure (CHF), the heart’s pumping ability is reduced. The heart is less effective at circulating blood than in a healthy person. Heart failure can stimulate complicated involuntary mechanisms that encourage the body to keep extra fluid. The heart is also less helpful in creating blood flow to the vital organs. Because of this, people with CHF may develop kidney problems.
Checking your daily weight is a crucial tool in managing heart failure. Contact your healthcare provider if you notice a weight gain of two or three pounds in a day or five pounds in a week. This may be a sign of a serious condition causing fluid retention.
Some medications can cause swelling or edema. The most common include:
The mother’s blood volume increases during pregnancy, so there is extra available to travel through the placenta and nourish the growing baby. The plasma volume (the fluid part of the blood) can increase 50% by the end of pregnancy.
It’s common to have swollen feet and ankles that worsen as the pregnancy progresses. Talk with your healthcare team for techniques to help manage pregnancy edema.
Some women report fluid retention as part of their typical menstrual cycle (period). The hormones that regulate female fertility can cause bloating or edema. Typically this does not require medical attention as the fluid retention is predictable and happens with each cycle. However, speak with your healthcare provider if you have concerns.
Other medical and lifestyle factors can cause your body to retain water. Some of these include:
- Travel: For some people, sitting for a long time in a car or airplane can cause fluid retention. The lack of circulation allows fluid to build up; however, the swelling usually goes away in a day or two.
- Blood clots: Blood clots in the veins of the arm or leg can cause swelling. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have swelling in only one arm or leg.
- Chronic venous insufficiency: If you have weak or poorly functioning veins, especially in your legs, you may develop swelling.
How to Get Rid of Water Retention
Treatments to reduce water retention work best when they are focused on the cause. Work with your healthcare team to find the approach that works for you.
For many people, reducing the amount of salt (sodium) in the diet can improve water retention. This is because high sodium levels in the blood encourage the body to hold on to more water. Less salt in the body often means less edema.
Read nutrition labels when available. If sodium is an ingredient, it is listed per serving size. Whenever possible, choose fresh ingredients rather than processed or packaged foods.
Fluid is heavy, and when there is extra fluid in the body, it collects in the lower areas due to gravity. Elevating swollen arms or legs, especially above your heart level, can help reduce edema. As the extra fluid moves into the blood vessels, your body will eliminate it in the urine. You can use a footstool, pillows, or even a recliner to elevate water retention areas.
OTC or medical-grade compression clothing can help get rid of extra water in your body. These put gentle pressure on the swollen arm or leg to help move the fluid back into the blood vessels so your kidneys can add it to your urine.
Compression socks and stockings are available for legs. Compression sleeves are available for arms. If you are using compression garments for heart failure, you may be able to get a prescription from your provider.
Vitamin B6 is believed to help the body pass sodium in the urine. When sodium leaves the body, extra water generally is removed as well. According to one study, vitamin B6 may reduce the bloating and swelling associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
If you want to try a vitamin supplement, talk with your provider and discuss the dose and type suitable for you.
Preventing fluid retention is more helpful than getting rid of extra water. There are a few things you can do that you can try, including:
- Move frequently. Be sure to get up and walk regularly.
- Do not sit or stand in the same place for too long. You activate muscle pumps in your leg that move fluid up and out when you walk.
- Try to avoid foods that you know will make you retain excess water.
- Read nutrition labels carefully and avoid any known triggers.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
If you have new or worsening swelling, it is important to be evaluated by a healthcare provider. Heart and kidney disease should receive early identification and treatment for the best outcomes. You can have problems with some of your internal organs and still feel otherwise healthy.
Fluid retention can be a brief discomfort related to a lifestyle choice or a symptom of a serious health condition. The best way to manage edema depends on the original cause of the swelling. However, there are some basic at-home remedies you can try. If you have new or worsening water retention, be sure to see a healthcare provider.
A Word From Verywell
Weight gain, swollen ankles, or tight rings can be very uncomfortable and cause unwanted cosmetic changes. Sometimes, fluid retention is normal and expected, such as air travel, pregnancy, or your menstrual cycle. Other times, it can signify your heart or kidney disease is getting worse. Doing what you can to prevent edema is the first step, and then see a medical professional to keep your symptoms in check.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to get rid of water retention overnight?
Water retention can be a complex body process, and it may take longer than one night to clear the extra fluid from your body. However, compression clothing, elevating swollen body areas, and reducing your salt intake can help alleviate your edema.
How long does it take for water retention to leave the body?
It depends on how well your heart pumps your blood and how well your kidneys work to make urine. Causes of swelling like your period or a pregnancy usually clear within a few days. Edema related to medical problems takes longer.
What happens if water retention is left untreated?
Water retention may clear without treatment in a few days. However, if there is a health problem causing you to hold onto fluid, your swelling may worsen over time. You may find that the body parts retaining water become tight, swollen, and painful. If untreated, heart or kidney problems may get much worse.