Whether it’s typical for your ankles to swell at the end of an especially hot Summer day or you’re surprised by their stiffness after a long ride in the car, you should know if their “new” look is normal or serious.
A lot of things can lead to swelling (also called edema) in your feet and legs. The good news is there are many solutions to ease the pain and discomfort of relatively normal swelling—all in the comfort of your own home.
But first, it’s important to make sure the garden-variety swelling isn’t accompanied by a sign of something that is, in fact, more serious and needs medical attention.
Call 9-1-1. Call for an ambulance if you have any of these along with swelling:
• Difficulty breathing or coughing
• Chest pain
• Confusion, fainting, or dizziness
Immediately call your doctor. Dial your doctor’s office if you have:
• Swelling in only one foot, ankle, or lower leg
• Heart disease or kidney disease and swelling gets worse
• A history of liver disease
• A sudden increase in swelling and you are pregnant
• Pain or tenderness
• An open sore
• A fever
• Warmth or redness in a foot, ankle, or lower leg
• Been injured
• Swelling for no apparent reason
Check in with your doctor. Schedule a visit with your doctor if you have chronic swelling and take one of these medicines that can have edema as a side effect:
• Birth control pills
• Calcium-channel blockers, a type of blood pressure medicine
What Causes Temporary and Occasional Swelling
• Standing or sitting for a long time. Gravity works so your body’s fluids tend to gravitate at your feet and ankles. Long airplane flights or car rides, as well as standing for long periods of time, often lead to some swelling in the feet and ankles.
• Eating too much salt and not drinking enough fluids. This makes your body hold onto any liquid it gets.
• A hot day. Heat expands blood vessels and lets fluid into your body’s tissues.
• Hormone changes. Your period, being pregnant or going through menopause can cause swelling.
• Age & weight. If you are elderly or overweight, you’re more likely to sometimes have swollen ankles.
One way to tell if your swelling is temporary is to do this test: Gently push your finger on the swollen area. Hold for at least 5 seconds. Remove your finger and check for a dimple, or indentation, in your skin. If your socks or shoes leave indented rings on your skin, you don’t need to do this test to check if swelling is temporary.
Skin that doesn’t pit could be a sign of a more serious circulatory problem called lymphedema. If you have puffiness with no indentation, call to schedule a visit and check in with your doctor.
Tips to Prevent Puffiness
Based on what causes swelling, some ways to avoid it are straightforward.
Tap your toes. Take this advice to keep blood flowing.
• Wear adjustable shoes that have hook and loop closures, laces or buckles that you can loosen.
• Get up and move around every hour if possible, or at least every two hours. Do this at home, work, and when you travel.
• While sitting or lying down, pump your feet up and down like you’re pressing on a gas pedal 75 times. (This can act as a natural diuretic, so time this exercise appropriately!) Circular motions are also effective.
• Massage your feet and ankles to improve circulation. Even a light amount of pressure will help. For extra TLC, use a cooling cream, too.
• On flights, sit in the bulkhead or emergency exit row when you can because you’ll have more room to move your lower body.
• On long trips, don’t take medicines or sleeping pills that will keep you from moving around.
• Wear compression socks or support hosiery to help improve circulation.
Remember salt water is only for oceans. Here’s how to keep salt levels in your natural fluids from rising:
• Drink the recommended 8 glasses of water a day. Everything wet counts except alcohol because it passes through you too quickly.
• Eat clean. Natural foods—like fruits, vegetables, and meat—usually aren’t salty. Keep them that way by eating them naturally or adding flavorings other than salt.
• Be picky about packaged foods. Food that’s in a box or can—pretty much anything with a nutrition label—deserves a quick glance at the sodium amounts. Look at the percentage it has for your daily needs and consider that you usually get all the sodium you need before you eat any of these foods.
• Be aware of sneaky salt in items you might not realize have excess amounts. Some foods with a lot of salt may surprise you, like certain cereals, veggie burgers, salad dressings and boxed cake mixes.
Be cool. You don’t need to freeze your feet, but you can refresh them by:
• Using a hot/cold gel pack or therapy booty
• Exercising in the cooler parts of the day (early morning or late evening)
• Not taking really long walks in the heat
• Laying a cool, damp towel over your lower legs, ankles, and feet
Ready to Shop?
University of Maryland Medical Center: “Foot, Leg, and Ankle Swelling.”
Mayo Clinic: “Leg Swelling: When to See a Doctor”
HealingFeet Blog: “Here Comes Warmer Weather: Tips to Avoid Swollen Ankles This Summer”
HealthHub from Cleveland Clinic: “Edema”
Health: “25 Surprisingly Salty Processed Foods”