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Water retention in pregnancy

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 3 minutes read

During pregnancy, it’s perfectly normal to experience some swelling in your lower legs and possibly fingers. It gets worse as the day goes on, and usually the further along in pregnancy you are. Gradual swelling as you approach your due date is not associated with any harm to your or your baby, but it can feel quite uncomfortable.

If you have sudden swelling, this may be a sign of something more serious, so it’s best to get this checked out by one of your maternity team.

What causes this gradual swelling in pregnancy?

With any growing pregnancy, more fluid is retained in veins to pump bloods around both yours and your baby’s body, and this means that more fluids leaks out of veins into surrounding tissues. This is common in early and late stage pregnancy.

The growing womb also takes up more space in your abdomen, effectively reducing the blood flow back from the legs and feet. It’s called dependent oedema, and relates to veins finding it hard to push blood through their valve system against gravity in the lower limbs.

You may also notice swelling in your fingers, hands and around your face and even swollen ankles.

It’s worse when the weather is hot or after long periods of standing.

How can I reduce my water retention?

Focus on keeping yourself cool and avoid standing for long periods. When sitting, raise your legs up higher than your pelvis to allow blood to drain back to the heart. Regular exercise such as walking and swimming can help encourage fluid circulation.

Even though it doesn’t seem logical, you're advised to drink plenty of fluid as it helps your body get rid of any excess salt (sodium).

Take a look at your diet and try to reduce your salt intake and look for potassium-rich foods, such as bananas and avocados. These act in tandem to control the fluids in your veins and tissues, and pass out excess fluid in your urine.

It sounds obvious but make sure you wear comfortable flat shoes and socks to avoid the discomfort and pain from restriction of circulation and blood flow.

What causes sudden swelling and when should I worry?

Sudden onset swelling can be caused by either a condition called pre-eclampsia or a blood clot.

Pre-eclampsia is a combination of high blood pressure, protein in the urine and rapid swelling anywhere in the body. It only affects a small number of pregnancies but needs immediate review with a doctor. If left untreated, it can lead to eclampsia, where you are at risk of seizures – this can be life-threatening for you and your baby, and is remedied by delivery of the baby.

Alongside sudden swelling in your legs or arms, look out for new signs such as headaches, nausea or vomiting, visual changes or blurring and tummy pain.

Swelling in one of your calves along with an area that’s red, hot and painful may be caused by a clot in a deep vein, called a DVT (deep vein thrombosis)which is different to varicose veins. This needs urgent diagnosis and treatment, as it clots can pass to the lungs as a pulmonary embolus, this is life-threatening.

Pregnancy increases your risk of a DVT and pulmonary embolus, so it’s an important consideration if you have sudden swelling in your leg.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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