Water retention in the big city?

Originally Published: March 10, 2006 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 5, 2013
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Dear Alice,

I'm an 18 year old college student. Recently, I visited San Francisco, and while I was there I noticed that my hands and feet swelled. When I returned to home, my body went back to its normal size. Could this be water retention? If so, will it go away after my body becomes accustomed to the new climate/altitude? How long would that process take? Are there any pills/medication I could take to prevent the swelling?

Thanks for your time!

Dear Reader,

It sounds like the swelling that you experienced in your hands and feet was quite possibly water retention, also known as edema. Edema is the accumulation of extra fluid in the body's extremities caused by a temporary imbalance in your electrolyte and fluid levels. Rest assured that in most cases edema is a totally normal reaction to stress on the body and can arise for many different reasons. It is usually not serious unless it persists or reoccurs. 

The real question to ask yourself is why you are retaining water.  You stated that you believed that the differing climates between your home and San Francisco was the reason.  While it is quite common for people to experience water retention when they travel, the environments in these two places may not be drastically different enough to trigger the body to hold excess water.  However, it would depend on which season you traveled during and how different the weather was in both places.  A more likely explanation for your swelling may be from either sitting on the plane for a long time or all the walking you did while exploring "The City by the Bay."

This swelling usually goes away on its own after a few days as you return to a normal routine, but there are medications to treat edema if it continues.  Water pills are sometimes used as a diuretic to relieve the body of excess fluid. Lower sodium diets are also recommended to treat this condition.

Reflect back on your trip to San Francisco and the time before you left home. Besides the extra walking and the flight, was there anything else different going on in your life? Were you eating more salt than normal? Was your trip in the summer time? Were you experiencing extra stress due to work or personal issues? An increase in heat and added activity or stress could have contributed to your water retention. 

As edema is usually self-correcting, there is probably no need to worry. If it does reoccur, talk to a doctor about the best course of action. Continue to have fun and travel. Don't let a little water retention drag you down! 

Alice