What causes fluid retention?

Fluid retention is caused by too much fluid in your body tissues. There are a variety of causes, including changes in the levels of minerals and proteins in your blood and tissues, heart failure, kidney failure, and certain medicines.

Common causes of fluid retention

Fluid retention may be caused by several common conditions including:

  • Burns
  • Cancer
  • Diet too high in salt
  • Heart failure
  • Hypertension
  • Kidney disease (includes any type of kidney problem, such as kidney stones, kidney failure and kidney anomalies)
  • Liver disease (includes any type of liver problem, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver failure)
  • Lymphadenopathy (enlarged lymph nodes due to inflammation or tumor)
  • Medication side effects (blood pressure lowering drugs, thiozolidinediones for diabetes)
  • Parasitic infection such as lymphatic filariasis
  • Pregnancy
  • Recent surgery
  • Sitting or standing in the same position for a long period of time
  • Venous insufficiency

Serious or life-threatening causes of fluid retention

In some cases, fluid retention may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Heart failure
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver disease (includes any type of liver problem, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver failure)
  • Venous thrombosis

Questions for diagnosing the cause of fluid retention

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your fluid retention including:

  • When did you first notice your fluid retention?
  • Where have you noticed fluid retention?
  • Are you having any difficulty with physical activity?
  • Are you having any trouble sleeping?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Does anything improve or worsen your fluid retention?
  • What is your typical diet?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of fluid retention?

The complications of fluid retention vary widely depending on the severity and underlying cause. In some cases, mild fluid retention might occur after eating a meal heavy with salt, which does not have any major complications. In severe heart failure, however, fluid retention can be so severe that your lungs can fill with excess fluid, causing a life-threatening pulmonary edema.

Because fluid retention can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Heart failure
  • Infection in and around the area of edema
  • Loss of mobility
  • Organ failure or dysfunction
  • Progressive physical disability
  • Respiratory failure
  • Skin ulcerations
  • Spread of cancer


  1. Edema. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/edema.html.
  2. What is heart failure? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Diseases and Conditions Index. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Hf/HF_SignsAndSymptoms.html.
  3. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy.Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.

What is fluid retention?

Fluid retention (edema) is excess fluid that collects in the tissues in your body. Most commonly, fluid retention is marked by swelling of your feet and lower legs, but swelling could also occur in your arms, hands, face, or other areas of the body.

Fluid retention can be caused by a wide range of conditions and diseases. The most common cause of fluid retention is too much salt i... Read more about fluid retentionintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with fluid retention?

Fluid retention may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently accompany fluid retention may also involve other body systems.

Cardiovascular symptoms that may occur along with fluid retention

Fluid retention may accompany other symptoms affecting the cardiovascular system including:

... Read more about fluid retentionsymptoms

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 9, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Heart, Blood and Circulation