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Swollen ankles

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs is often caused by a fluid build-up, and we call it edema. Your legs might look puffy, shiny, or stretched, and they might feel a bit sore or heavy and cause difficulty walking.

It's quite common in very warm weather, especially if you've been on your feet all day. It often goes away on its own, but it's reasonable to see your doctor if it does not improve after a few days or your symptoms are getting worse.

What causes swollen ankles?

Fluid build-up can be caused by lifestyle factors such as inactivity, standing for prolonged periods of time, being overweight, and having excess salt in your diet. The water retention of pregnancy can cause lower legs to swell.

If you have an infection of your lower leg, you can get swelling as a result of that, as well as in response to an insect bite or an injury.

Conditions affecting the kidneys, lungs, and heart, such as heart failure, kidney disease, or blood clots, can also cause edema. Certain medications may lead to swelling as a side effect, such as the blood pressure medication amlodipine, or steroid tablets and contraceptive pills.

How can I manage symptoms at home?

Addressing some simple lifestyle factors can be a good first step to help those of you who get occasional swelling. Keep up your fitness and activity levels, avoid standing or sitting for prolonged periods of time, avoid tight clothing, and reduce your salt intake - these are all good places to start.

When sitting or resting, raise your legs up on a stool or pillow, with the feet higher than the pelvis, to allow gravity to drain fluid from the ankles to the torso. This can be an effective way to reduce the pooling of fluid in your lower legs and improve swelling.

Keeping cool and taking a tepid foot bath in hot weather may help relieve the swelling.

When should I see my doctor?

If your symptoms are not improving after a few days, or if you have any other symptoms accompanying the leg swelling, you should speak with your doctor. If you've recently started medication, you should book an appointment.

You should seek an urgent appointment if you develop swelling on just one leg only without an obvious cause or if you develop swelling with a tender, hard calf and find it difficult to walk, especially if you have risk factors for blood clots, as this could be a deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Seek urgent medical attention if you feel short of breath and cough up white frothy sputum, alongside new ankle swelling, especially if you have other risk factors for heart failure. Similarly, if you have a hot red area that's very painful, particularly if you've had an insect bite, or if you have single leg swelling and you feel unwell with fevers or vomiting, this may indicate a deep skin infection called cellulitis.

If you have any severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or heavy chest pain, it is important to call the emergency services or go to your local emergency department right away, as this could be due to a blood clot requiring immediate treatment.

What will my doctor do?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and make sure you have no symptoms that require immediate treatment. They will then examine you thoroughly, and they may order blood tests.

Treatment of leg swelling is usually managed by treating the underlying cause. For example, swapping medications if one is thought to be the cause or starting antibiotics if they suspect an infection.

In certain circumstances, such as heart failure, diuretic medications such as furosemide can be prescribed to help remove excess fluid from the body and reduce swelling.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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