Swollen ankles: 11 causes and how to treat them

The term edema means swelling due to the accumulation of excess fluid. It is particularly common in the lower leg, ankles, and feet.

In this article, we look at 11 causes of swollen ankles and cover some of the best treatment options.

Possible causes of swollen ankles include:

1. Foot or ankle injury

People who sustain an injury to the foot or ankle may experience inflammation in that area, causing it to appear swollen.

An ankle sprain is one of the most common foot injuries.

The American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society recommend the following home treatment for a sprained ankle:

  • resting
  • wearing an ankle brace
  • applying ice in a thin piece of cloth for no more than 20 minutes
  • applying a compression wrap
  • elevating the foot above the waist

2. Cellulitis

Bacterial infections in the skin are called cellulitis. People with diabetes are particularly prone to this type of infection.

Cellulitis can cause a range of symptoms, including redness, warm skin, and swelling that spreads rapidly. In rare cases, cellulitis can be life-threatening without treatment.

People with cellulitis need to take antibiotics. It is essential to tell a doctor if the swelling does not reduce or gets worse after a few days of treatment.

3. Medication side effect

Some medications can cause the ankles to swell as a side effect. Such medications include:

  • antidepressants
  • birth control pills and others containing estrogen
  • testosterone pills
  • calcium channel blockers for high blood pressure
  • steroids

People who suspect that their ankles are swollen as a side effect of medication may wish to talk to their doctor.

A doctor may prescribe diuretic medications or suggest methods for reducing the swelling if it is uncomfortable.

During pregnancy, the body produces more blood and bodily fluids to support the developing fetus.

Swelling is a common side effect of pregnancy, especially in the third trimester. It can affect the ankles, feet, legs, face, and hands.

Slight swelling is normal and usually harmless. However, sudden swelling of the hands and face could be a sign of a potentially life-threatening condition called preeclampsia.

Women who experience mild swelling during pregnancy may get relief from home remedies such as:

  • eating foods high in potassium
  • reducing salt intake
  • avoiding caffeine
  • wearing comfortable shoes
  • wearing support stockings
  • avoiding standing for long periods
  • elevating the feet when resting
  • applying cold compresses
  • wearing loose-fitting clothes
  • limiting time outdoors during hot weather
  • resting in a pool

7. Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is a life-threatening condition that can occur during the second or third trimester of pregnancy, or up to 6 weeks after giving birth.

Preeclampsia is characterized by dangerously high blood pressure and protein in the urine. It can cause a variety of symptoms, including headaches, changes in vision, weight gain, and edema.

Preeclampsia that occurs during pregnancy can also affect the fetus.

It requires urgent medical treatment. Treatment may include medications to prevent seizures and lower blood pressure.

Delivering the baby is the most effective treatment, although some women may experience worsening symptoms before they get better.

Chronic kidney disease refers to permanent kidney damage, which can worsen over time.

A person may not experience any symptoms until they are in the late stages of the disease, called kidney failure or end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

During ESRD, the kidneys struggle to remove waste and extra fluid from the body. This can lead to a range of symptoms, including swollen ankles.

The following lifestyle factors can also help maintain kidney function for as long as possible:

  • reducing salt and fat in the diet
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • maintaining a healthy blood pressure
  • exercising for at least 30 minutes per day
  • quitting smoking
  • limiting alcohol
  • controlling blood sugar levels

11. Liver disease

The healthy liver produces a protein called albumin. Albumin prevents fluid from leaking out of the blood vessels and into surrounding tissues.

Very low levels of albumin due to liver disease can cause a buildup of fluid in the legs, ankles, and abdomen.

A doctor may prescribe medications and offer advice on certain lifestyle factors that could help prevent or slow further liver damage. Examples include:

  • exercising regularly
  • eating a healthful diet
  • limiting salt intake
  • avoiding alcohol

When to see a doctor

A person should see a doctor if they have:

  • heat or redness in the swollen area
  • swelling that worsens or does not improve
  • a fever
  • a sudden increase in swelling during pregnancy
  • a history of heart, kidney, or liver disease

Many cases of edema, or swollen ankles, will resolve themselves with proper home treatment.

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