Swollen Legs - Symptoms

Authored by Dr Mary Harding, 04 Jul 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr Laurence Knott, 04 Jul 2017

Having "swollen legs" is a symptom itself, but legs can be swollen in different ways. The clue to the cause (and therefore the treatment) may well be in the type of swelling. The swelling can be:

  • One-sided or both-sided. Oedema due to conditions of general body systems is usually on both sides and is symmetrical (for example, if due to heart failure or pregnancy or kidney problems.) One-sided swelling is more likely to be due to a problem with a particular part of that leg.
  • In a specific area or generalised. Swelling around joints is usually caused by injury or a type of arthritis. Swelling in specific areas of skin may be caused by allergy or infection. Swelling around the back of the heel suggests a problem of the Achilles tendon, etc. Generalised swelling, especially if on both sides, is likely to be oedema.
  • Painful or painless. Painful conditions include infections, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), injuries and joint problems. Oedema is not usually painful, although legs can ache and feel tight.
  • Accompanied by red (inflamed) or normal skin colour. If the skin is reddened, it is likely to be due to an infection (such as cellulitis), or inflammation (for example, gout, rheumatoid arthritis or DVT).
  • Pitting or not. Pitting means that if you press a fingertip into the swollen area and then take your fingertip away, a dent remains in the skin. Oedema tends to be pitting. Lymphoedema, a condition where there is a blockage to lymph fluid, does not usually pit so much.
Peripheral oedema

In addition to the leg or legs being swollen, there may be other associated symptoms. Again, these help give a clue to the cause of the leg swelling. For example:

  • Breathlessness which started at the same time as the leg swelling might suggest heart failure (if both legs) or DVT (if one leg) spreading to the lungs (pulmonary embolism).
  • A high temperature (fever) suggests some type of infection.
  • Tiredness might suggest a more general illness, such as anaemia or kidney problems.
  • Diarrhoea might suggest a gut problem affecting the amount of protein being absorbed in the guts.
  • Being yellow (jaundiced) suggests a liver problem, such as cirrhosis.
  • Swelling in other places other than the legs - for example, in the tummy, hands or around the eyes. This would suggest a problem with another or general body system rather than a problem with the leg or legs.

Further reading and references

What are lipoedema and lymphoedema?
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