Senior's Guide to Beating the Summer Swells: Edema
Edema is a common condition that’s brought on by excess fluid being retained by the tissues of your body, causing swelling. There are many reasons you might suffer from edema, including in response to medication, changes in your diet, or more serious underlying causes, but edema can strike just about anyone at any time of their lives.
When it comes to the seniors, though, edema often manifests in specific ways than in younger people. Edema is common in seniors, especially in the extremities such as the feet, ankles and legs, according to the US National Library of Medicine (Foot, Leg, and Ankle Swelling, n.d.). Additionally, edema can get much worse during the summer months, as the condition reacts negatively to high temperatures. This has led to edema to sometimes be referred to as the “summer swells”, as those who suffer from this swelling often report it getting worse when it’s hot out.
But worry not - if you’re one of those who suffers from edema, this guide is for you. Even if you simply help care for a senior that’s susceptible to the summer swells, this guide will provide you with the knowledge you need to help them weather edema better, no matter what time of year. Let’s get started, shall we?
What Causes Edema?
When it comes to the causes of edema, there are a number of different contributing factors. If you’re older, overweight, if you have blood clots in your legs, if you’re suffering from a leg infection, or if your veins are not strong enough to pump blood back to the heart (a condition called venous insufficiency) can all contribute to fluid build-up in your legs, ankles, and feet. All of these conditions can make it difficult for your body to remove fluid from places furthest from your heart (this is why most types of edema occur in the lower extremities).
Sometimes you might not be suffering from any injuries and yet still experience edema. If you’re on a long flight or car ride, fluid can settle in the lower parts of your body over time due to not moving for up to hours at a time. Likewise, if you spend long periods of time seated for other reasons, your feet and ankles can also swell as fluid that would otherwise be driven back up towards your heart by the movement of your body simply languishes in your extremities as well.
Sometimes women can be more susceptible to edema during their menstrual cycle or while pregnant. Pre-eclampsia, a condition during pregnancy that’s characterized by high blood pressure, includes swelling in both the hands and feet as one of its symptoms. However, swelling isn’t relegated to just pregnant women - those women who reach menopause might also develop edema more easily. This is quite common if they’re taking hormone replacement pills to help manage the symptoms of menopause. Other medications, such as certain kinds of antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and steroids, can also cause you to retain fluid regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.
Finally, edema can be caused by some serious illnesses. These include heart failure, kidney failure, and kidney disease, as all these conditions cause your body to retain water.
How to Treat and Relieve Swelling
Edema can be an uncomfortable condition, especially as it can lead to lowered mobility in your legs, ankles, and feet. It can interfere with you being able to enjoy your life in a number of ways as a result. Thankfully, there are a number of ways that you can manage edema and relieve the swelling in your legs, and is treated in conjunction with what is causing the edema in the first place. Here are a number of effective ways to treat edema, as according to the Cleveland Clinic (n.d.):
- Quitting smoking, if edema is caused by a related lung disease like emphysema
- Monitoring weight, fluid, and salt intake, if caused by coronary heart disease
- Stopping or changing medication linked to the swellin
- Putting a pillow under your legs, elevating them above your heart
- Getting up and walking around after long periods of sitting or standing still
- Wearing compression stockings, available at most pharmacies to keep fluids from collecting in your legs
- Limiting salt in your diet to reduce overall fluid retention
- Taking a diuretic (sometimes called a water pill) to help your body eliminate excess fluid
Finally, the Cleveland Clinic recommends protecting any swollen areas of your skin from injury, additional pressure, and high temperatures. It takes longer to heal skin over swollen areas and it’s also more likely that these injuries can become infected, so make sure you contact your doctor right away if you notice any heat, pain, or redness in a swollen area, or if you’ve noticed an open sore that does not seem to be healing. You should also contact your doctor immediately if you experience swelling in only one limb or shortness of breath.
How to Help Seniors Enjoy the Summer
Edema and swelling can certainly be a bummer, especially in the summer. With excess heat being one way to make edema worse, it’s important to stay comfortable in hotter weather to avoid additional swelling. The National Institutes of Health’s Institute on Aging reports that heat-related health dangers are much higher in the summer months, and that includes not just edema but heat stroke and other related types of hyperthermia like heat syncope and heat exhaustion (Heat-Related Health Dangers for Older Adults Soar during the Summer, 2018).
According to the Institute, it’s imperative that seniors spend as much time indoors on hot and humid days, especially when air pollution levels are high at the same time. Staying cool can be accomplished by drinking plenty of fluids and by wearing light-colored clothes made from natural fabrics that have a loose fit. If a living space doesn’t have air conditioning, it’s important to keep it as cool as possible, making use of cross-ventilation with open windows and one or more powerful electric fans to keep air from becoming stagnant. If this isn’t possible, it’s best to avoid home altogether and to go someplace else that provides access to cooler temperatures.
Activities You Can Do
While it may seem like suffering with the summer swells means staying at home in front of the air conditioner at all times, that’s really not the case. Seniors can still enjoy their summers quite well, as long as they take into account that there are some activities that are better than others when it comes to keeping those swollen legs and ankles away!
First and foremost, it’s important to visit places that are climate controlled. Public places with air conditioning are ideal. Shopping malls with plenty of places to sit and rest, public libraries where you can enjoy a daily paper, community centers or places of worship where you can get together with friends and family, and even a well air-conditioned movie theater are all excellent choices. Even going out to eat at your favorite air-conditioned diner or restaurant can be a pleasant change of pace that will help keep the swelling down - as long as you go easy on the salty food.
You don’t have to relegate yourself to being inside, though. A nice dip in the pool can be quite refreshing, especially on hot and humid days. Relaxing at the beach or the boardwalk can be fun as well, but only if you take the proper precautions of staying in the shade, protecting your skin with lots of sunblock, and keeping well hydrated at all times. You can also spend time outdoors at night, as temperatures usually drop shortly after the sun goes down. Feel free to take in the 4th of July fireworks at your local park, or to go for a short walk at sunset to keep your blood pumping. All of these different choices can help reduce your edema while also enjoying everything summer has to offer.
Edema can strike more or less anyone, though it’s much more common to suffer from swelling if you’re a senior. Edema can also get much worse in the summertime, as excess heat can worsen swelling, making it a miserable or even dangerous time for anyone who’s already suffering from swollen and tender feet, ankles, or legs.
However, just because you’re worried about your edema worsening in the summer doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to make it better. Between the regular, doctor-recommended treatments for edema, such as elevating your legs, wearing compression stockings, and taking the medications prescribed to you by your doctor, you can also make an effort to stay cool during the hot summer months to avoid having the heat make any swelling worse.
No one ever likes having to deal with edema. However, no one ever got the swelling in their legs to go away by ignoring it. Being smart about your edema means that you can control it, reduce it, and maybe even eliminate it so you can enjoy your life to the fullest!