When we think about puffy legs and ankles, we often think about the dog days of summer. After all, that’s when most people notice it. The heat causes blood vessels in the legs to dilate. And that can cause fluids to pool under the skin. This is a condition called edema. Read more about summer swelling here.

But as the mercury drops, it doesn’t mean swelling ceases. The causes are just different. Here’s the scoop on what might be the culprit and how to handle it.

What causes ankle and leg swelling, even when it’s cooler outside?

How much time do you have? “There are many, many possible reasons that your lower extremities are swelling,” says Daniel Geller, DPM. He’s a foot and ankle surgeon in Los Angeles. And those reasons can range from harmless to severe.

One of the most common, no-big-deal culprits: being on your feet all day or sitting for long stretches. (Think: taking a long bus ride or plane ride.) This can cause fluid to build up in your legs and feet. (Thanks, gravity.) It’s usually not serious, and it just takes a bit of movement to de-puff, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

If this swelling isn’t a once-in-a-while thing, it could be a sign of something more. “Although you shouldn’t stress about it, you should have any leg swelling evaluated by a doctor,” Dr. Geller says. (If you need medication for edema or another health condition, we can help you save up to 80%. Download our free mobile app to get started.)

Your doctor may look for one of these possible causes, explains Dr. Geller:

  • Eating too much salt. Sodium is a mineral that the body needs. But in excess, it can cause the body to hold on to fluids. This can also lead to high blood pressure.
  • Kidney problems. If your kidneys aren’t excreting fluids fast enough, it could cause swelling.
  • Inflammation in your leg joints or tissues. This could be a normal response to an injury (maybe a sprained ankle or a broken bone). Or it could be from an inflammatory condition such as arthritis.
  • Heart or blood vessel conditions. This may mean your heart or blood vessels aren’t able to pump fluids back up as efficiently.
  • Prescription side effects. Some medications used for diabetes or high blood pressure could cause fluid retention, too.

Are there ways that I can treat the swelling at home?

Yes, there are. Swelling can be treated with simple lifestyle habits — or medications. Here are 5 strategies that could help lessen that swelling and even prevent it from happening in the first place.

Stay hydrated. “Dehydrated individuals are prone to retain fluids more, and that fluid typically goes south,” Dr. Geller says. It may sound counterintuitive, but when you’re dehydrated, your body tries to hold on to as much fluid as possible.

To make sure you’re getting enough water from food and beverages, check the color of your urine. If it’s a pale-yellow color, that’s a sign your body is well hydrated.

Try healthy food swaps. “Electrolyte imbalances can create fluid retention,” says Dr. Geller. That doesn’t mean you should down Gatorade, though. It’s about managing your intake of important minerals such as sodium, potassium and magnesium, adds Dr. Geller.

Remember that sodium prompts the body to retain fluids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top sources of sodium are foods we often eat away from home. That includes pizza, deli sandwiches and cold cuts, soups, and burritos or tacos with added cheese. Store-bought snacks such as chips and crackers are also near the top of the list.

Instead, aim to fill your plate with wholesome plant-based foods. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains (such as oatmeal or brown rice) are rich in potassium, magnesium and other nutrients that lessen sodium’s swelling effects.

Ask your doctor about which medications can help. In some cases, your doctor may recommend medication to help curb the swelling. Of course, what that is will depend on what’s causing your swelling.

If an injury is driving the swelling, over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen (Advil® or Motrin®) or naproxen (Aleve®) can be effective. (You can find pain relief and other OTC medications at the Optum Store.) It’s important to always check in with your doctor before self-medicating, though. That’s especially true if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease or another GI condition, or if you’re over 65 or have a bleeding disorder.

Your doctor may also consider prescribing you a diuretic, says Dr. Geller. Diuretics are water pills that encourage your kidneys to produce more urine so that you excrete salt from your body. Less salt and less fluid could help decrease swelling. Here’s our guide to the diuretic diet.

Try compression socks. Compression socks do work, but Dr. Geller recommends that you consult with your doctor first. There aren’t necessarily downsides to wearing compression socks, but “you want to make sure you know what you’re treating,” he says.

Your doctor can then help you figure out what type of compression is best. Some people need gradient compression. That’s when the squeeze is tightest at the ankle and lessens farther up the leg. Others may require something such as thigh-high compression.

Sit less, move more. Whether you enjoy brisk walking or taking a group fitness class, any form of exercise can help lessen swelling in your lower extremities. “Your calf acts as a second heart that pumps blood back up,” Dr. Geller says.

If you find yourself sitting or standing in a stationary position for much of the day, try to schedule regular breaks. Stand up and stretch, roll your ankles or take a short walk. You can even try a standing desk, if you’re so inclined. Most important, recommends Dr. Geller, “wear comfortable shoes to help motivate you to walk.”

When you notice your legs or ankles puffing up, don’t panic. The best way to tackle your concerns is to talk to your health care team about your symptoms. That way, you can find a solution that will put your mind — and your swelling — at ease.

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Additional sources
When leg swelling is a sign of a serious health condition: Cleveland Clinic
Top sources of sodium: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention