13 Reasons You Have Swollen Feet

If your feet are feeling a little swollen, or if you feel like you're walking with balloons around your ankles—something is causing your feet to swell up. From changes in your weight to heart disease, here are 13 reasons why your feet are swollen.

Low Section Of Woman With Ankle Pain Sitting On Bed

You've got to hand it to your feet—they might just be the hardest-working part of your body. They take a beating every day by supporting your body weight and letting you walk, run, jump, and stand. The 26 bones and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments in each foot and ankle work as a team to carry you wherever you go each day, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

So what exactly happens when feet swell? Whether due to standing, inactivity, injury, or some other cause—fluid builds up in your feet, ankles, and legs, according to MedlinePlus. Gravity helps this along too, said Dyane Tower, DPM, Director of Clinical Affairs at the American Podiatric Medical Association.

All of this foot action adds up to a lot of wear and tear, so it isn't a surprise that one of the biggest complaints people have is swollen feet. Feet often puff up because you're not treating them with the care they deserve—say by standing or walking all day, according to Harvard Health. But swollen feet have other causes too, some of which are serious and may be red flags to a larger health issue.

Tired of coming home with feet that feel like balloons? Our guide below covers every cause and what to do about it.

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Standing for Hours at a Time

Anyone who works on their feet may feel like their shoes are too tight at the end of the day. Here's why: Blood gathers in the veins of your legs because of gravity, and water from the blood begins to pool into the tissues in your legs, feet, and ankles, according to Harvard Health. This causes swelling, which can make your shoes feel tighter.

While annoying, this kind of end-of-the-day swelling is usually not indicative of a larger problem and should go away once you've rested your feet. "There are no hard and fast guidelines, but if you're on your feet all day long, it's reasonable to sit five minutes every hour, or put your legs up," said Jason Johanning, MD, Professor of Vascular Surgery, University of Nebraska Medical Center.

If the swelling persists, or you can't take breaks from standing or walking, give compression stockings a try. "Compression stockings work the same way as walking and add a bit of pumping action to keep the blood flowing a little faster," said Roy Silverstein, MD, Professor and Chair of Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

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The sodium in salt (also known as sodium chloride) is the biggest dietary culprit when it comes to retaining water in general. So it only makes sense that it can lead to swollen feet as well, said Dr. Johanning. The American Heart Association recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium every day, or about a teaspoon of salt per day.

Sodium can be hidden among a list of ingredients in processed and take-out foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prime sources of sodium include:

  • Cold cuts
  • Processed snacks (chips, popcorn, crackers, etc)
  • Pizza
  • Soups
  • Bread
  • Tacos/burritos
  • Cheese
  • Eggs

Try to swap out more sodium-free or low-sodium items into your diet. You can monitor the sodium content in a food by looking at the nutrition facts label, according to the CDC.

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For many women, swollen feet are an inevitable part of pregnancy. "As the baby grows, it presses on the pelvic veins, and you get a little bit of compromised circulation," said Jill Rabin, MD, Chief, Division of Ambulatory Care at Northwell Health.

Foot swelling tends to get worse as pregnancy progresses, especially toward the end of the day and when the temperature outside is high, according to Nemours Children's Health. Usually the swelling is nothing to worry about. But if it comes on rapidly, especially in your hands and face, call your healthcare provider. This could be a sign of a preeclampsia, which leads to rapid-onset high blood pressure and can be dangerous, according to MedlinePlus.

According to Nemours Children's Health, here are some ways to ease swollen feet due to pregnancy:

  • Don't stand or sit for extended periods of time
  • Prop your feet up
  • Wear compression stockings
  • Exercise
  • Stay cool in the heat
  • Sleep on your left side

"If you have a big belly from pregnancy, lying on your back causes the blood vessels to compress," explained Dr. Rabin. "That makes it more difficult for the circulation to get back to the heart and will sometimes cause some of the fluid in the veins to seep out."

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Obesity, defined by the World Health Organization, is excess accumulation of fat that can cause health problems. Obesity is determined by a person's body mass index (BMI). If a person has a BMI over 30, they are considered obese.

If a person's BMI exceeds 50, they may develop lower extremity swelling, according to this article from 2015 in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Global Open. It is possible that, if obesity-related swelling occurs, it may be permanent. The study stated that once your BMI reaches 50, weight loss may not reverse the swelling. It is important to discuss treatment for foot swelling with your healthcare provider prior to reaching a BMI of 50.

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Maybe you sprained your ankle during a gym workout, you ended up with a stress fracture of the leg or toe, or you had surgery on your leg, ankle or foot. Injuries like these will cause swelling in and around your feet, according to MedlinePlus.

"The body's response [to an acute injury] is inflammation," explained Tower. "The blood goes down to that area of the heel and brings cells and fluid." Ultimately, the cells and fluid can make your foot seem extra large.

According to this article from 2021 in Harvard Health Publishing, to control the swelling it is recommended that you:

  • Elevate your feet
  • Compress the ankle with an ACE bandage
  • Apply cold compresses
  • Refrain from putting any weight on the foot for at least 24 hours
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Premenstrual Syndrome

You know how you can feel bloated the week before your period? That waterlogged feeling is the normal result of sodium and water retention after ovulation, when premenstrual syndrome (PMS) sets in, according to this study from 2015 in the International Journal of Women's Health.

PMS can also be to blame for swollen feet. The study found that 65% of people in the trial experienced swelling, also known as edema, during the premenstrual stage of their menstrual cycle. That edema can be caused by the same sodium and water retention that causes bloating.

"You can feel a little puffier or swollen for sure," said Britt Marcussen, MD, Clinical Associate Professor at University of Iowa. "It's noticeable in the legs and feet, where it tends to pool because of gravity."

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Certain medications have side effects of lower extremity swelling. Heart medications, known as vasodilators, help open up the blood vessels to make blood flow more freely. This increases the risk for leakage from the blood vessels to the surrounding tissue, which can cause swelling, according to a review from 2021 in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

Calcium channel blockers, another medication, can also cause leakage from the blood vessels into the tissue, according to this article from 2022 in StatPearls. This leakage can cause foot swelling.

Other drugs that can cause your feet to swell include anti-seizure drugs like Horizant (gabapentin) and chemotherapy drugs like Taxotere (docetaxel), according to a review from 2021 in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

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If your foot swelling is painful, it could be caused by a skin infection. Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that causes pain, swelling, and redness wherever the area is infected, according to the CDC. "The swelling is usually associated with red, hot, sore skin," said Dr. Marcussen.

People with diabetes are more prone to infections. This is because there is reduced blood flow to the lower extremities and they may not feel pain if there is an open cut or sore on their feet, according to MedlinePlus. If the wound isn't treated, that can lead to an infection which can cause the feet to swell up. People with diabetes should have a yearly foot exam to prevent infections from developing.

In general, to prevent infection make sure all open sores and cuts are clean and covered with a bandage, according to the CDC. For treatment, antibiotics will usually clear up bacterial infections that have already set in and fungal infections can be treated with antifungal medications.

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Lymphedema is a kind of swelling. According to MedlinePlus, lymph is a fluid that carries infection-fighting white blood cells to different parts of the body. Clusters of lymph nodes throughout your body control the travel of this fluid. But if your lymph nodes have been damaged or removed, say during surgery for cancer, the fluid won't drain properly—and that causes swelling called lymphedema.

Generally, swelling in the feet happens when the pelvic lymph nodes, which control lymph movement in your legs and feet, are injured or removed, according to the American Cancer Society. "The lymphatic vessels are very thin and pliable, so when you operate in the groin area, even with meticulous surgical care, they can be injured and can create an obstruction blocking the return of the lymphatic fluid," said Dr. Johanning.

Occasionally lymphedema is an inherited condition; often it's brought on by cancer or an infection, according to MedlinePlus. If you suspect your swollen feet are caused by any of these conditions, check in with your healthcare provider.

In the meantime, try compression stockings and moving around as much as possible. "The muscles pump fluid out of the lymph channels," said Dr. Marcussen. "If you're up and around and moving a lot more, that can help alleviate [the problem]."

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Heart Failure

Swollen feet are a common sign of congestive heart failure, according to MedlinePlus. Heart failure is when your heart isn't pumping enough blood. This means blood will back up in the veins, leading to fluid buildup.

Usually swelling in the feet points to right-sided heart failure, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. You may also experience:

  • Nausea
  • Weight gain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Swelling in your neck, legs, or abdomen

If it lasts long enough, you may also get pitting, which is when the skin stays indented after you put pressure on it, according to eMedicineHealth. Dr. Marcussen said, "If this and shortness of breath dramatically worsen, and you gain more than five pounds in a day, this should be concerning."

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Blood Clots

After sitting for a long time without moving your legs, you can develop swelling and pain in your leg which can mean you have a blood clot known as deep vein thrombosis, according to MedlinePlus.

How does foot swelling play into this? "The swelling is caused by the presence of the clot," said Dr. Silverstein. "The clot causes pressure to increase behind the area of obstruction, and that increased pressure pushes the fluids in the blood out of the veins into the tissues."

While anyone who sits for long periods can develop a blood clot, if you have certain factors or conditions it can boost your risk, according to this article from 2017 in News in Health. This includes:

  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney problems
  • A previous blood clot
  • Cancer
  • Birth control pills

Though a clot that's caused foot swelling doesn't always have other symptoms, typically you'll feel pain in your leg as well, according to MedlinePlus. "The most common presentation is significant pain and discomfort in the calf region with associated swelling of that limb," said Dr. Johanning.

If caught in time, it can be treated. But often it isn't, and the clot can break off and travel to the lungs, where it cuts off the oxygen supply and can be lethal. If these symptoms strike without explanation, notify your healthcare provider ASAP, or head for the emergency room.

You can prevent blood clots by staying active and taking breaks to move around if you're sitting for long periods of time, according to this article from 2017 in News in Health.

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Kidney Failure

Your kidneys are responsible for balancing fluids in your body and moving fluid you don't need out of your system, according to the National Kidney Foundation. When one or both aren't functioning properly, you might end up with swollen feet, according to the National Kidney Foundation. This is because your body is retaining extra salt so it is producing more fluid, thus causing your feet to swell.

"Normally people [with foot swelling] go home and put their feet up, and the body reabsorbs that little bit of extra fluid, and the kidneys just get rid of it," explained Dr. Marcussen. "[With] kidney problems, your body has trouble getting rid of that fluid, then that swelling is more marked and more dramatic. A lot of people have swelling other places too, like their hands and face."

This is when medications can help. "People who have heart failure or kidney problems are often put on diuretics," said Dr. Marcussen. "Basically they help the kidneys dump fluid."

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Liver Disease

Cirrhosis of the liver means the liver has developed permanent scarring from liver disease or damage, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The scarring interferes with blood flow through the liver which causes high blood pressure in the veins that go into the liver (called portal hypertension). This can lead to swelling in the legs, feet, and abdomen.

According to the NIDDK, other signs of cirrhosis include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Bloating
  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Having yellow-tinted skin and eyes

To treat, healthcare providers usually focus on treating the disease(s) that cause cirrhosis, according to the NIDDK. Treatment varies, depending on the disease. It may include medications, weight loss, or recommendations to stop drinking alcohol. Drugs, namely diuretics, and lifestyle measures like limiting salt intake can help with foot swelling, according to the NIDDK.

If your feet are swollen, there are a number of different causes. It may just be that you need to give them a break after a long day. Or it may be a sign of a serious condition. Discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider to determine the best course of treatment.

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