When Should You Be Concerned About Swollen Feet?

Swollen feet can be normal, but they can also be a warning for heart, liver, or kidney disease. Find out what to do for swollen feet and when to call your doctor.

swollen feet and legs

An injury or (as pictured here) bee sting may cause swollen feet, but they also may be a sign of a serious cardiovascular condition.

© Toa55 | Getty Images

Sometimes what to do about a swollen foot is an easy call. If you sprain your ankle or your foot is suddenly painful and swollen, calling your doctor is the way to go. [1] But what if you look down at your feet and ankles at the end of the day and they just look puffy and swollen?

Painless swelling that occurs in both feet and ankles is what doctors call peripheral edema. It happens when the tiniest blood vessels in your legs—your capillaries—leak fluid into your tissues and the fluid pools down in your feet and ankles. Another name for this edema is fluid retention. [1-4]

It is common to have more edema in hot weather or after a long trip. In most cases, this edema is not dangerous and you can treat it on your own. [4] However, in some cases, it can be caused by a serious disease. [1,3] So how do you know the difference?

What Does Normal Swelling in Your Feet Look Like?

It’s normal to have some swelling if you have been sitting or standing for long periods. You could be at higher risk for normal swelling if you are pregnant or you have been eating too much salty food. Some medications also cause edema, including blood pressure medications, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like Advil and Motrin), and steroid drugs. [2,4]

Here are some things to do for swollen feet at home:

  • Decrease your salt intake
  • Drink more fluids, about 10 glasses of water per day to get fluids moving out through your urine
  • Lose weight if you are overweight
  • Prop your legs up when you are sitting and prop them up on a pillow in bed
  • Avoid long periods of sitting or standing. Get up and do some walking
  • Try soaking your feet in water with Epsom salt, 15 to 20 minutes in cool water
  • Wear compression socks or stockings during the day. Make sure they are snug but not too tight
  • Try taking a magnesium supplement. Two to four hundred milligrams of magnesium may help reduce fluid retention [2,4]

If these home remedies don’t help, talk to your doctor. Ask your doctor if there are any medications that could be causing fluid retention. Your doctor may do some tests to see if there are any medical reasons for your fluid retention. [2,4]

Serious Causes of Foot  and Leg Swelling

Although less common, there are many causes of fluid retention or swelling that can be serious. So when should you call the doctor or go to the hospital for swollen legs and feet? Serious issues that cause swelling include:

  • Heart disease and heart failure
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • A blood clot that forms in your leg, called thrombophlebitis
  • Blocked lymph vessels, called lymphedema
  • Weak leg veins that are unable to return blood to your heart, called venous insufficiency [1,3]

Call your doctor if you feet are swollen and:

  • Swelling is only on one side or swelling is painful
  • The skin over your feet or ankles is stretched and shiny
  • Pressing a finger into the swelling leaves a dimple (called pitting edema)
  • You feel short of breath or lightheaded

Get immediate medical care if your feet are swollen and:

  • You’re experiencing pain, swelling, warmth, and tenderness in your calf area
  • You have difficulty breathing
  • You have chest pain [1,3]

The Bottom Line on Swollen Feet and Legs

Some fluid retention that seeps down into your feet and ankles is common and not serious. In most cases, this type of swelling goes away as soon as you prop your legs up. Let your doctor know if you have swelling that is frequent, painful, severe, or does not go away with home care. [1-4]


  1. Mayo Clinic, Leg Swelling, https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/leg-swelling/basics/causes/sym-20050910
  2. Cleveland Clinic, Home remedies to reduce pain and water retention, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/6-best-ways-relieve-swollen-feet-ankles-home/
  3. Mayo Clinic, Edema, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/edema/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20366532?p=1
  4. American Academy of Family Physicians, Edema, https://familydoctor.org/condition/edema/?adfree=true

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Chris Iliades, MD

Dr. Chris Iliades is board-certified in Ear, Nose and Throat and Head and Neck Surgery from the American Board of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery. He holds a medical … Read More

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