Water retention in the big city?

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 seems 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. Traveling between extreme altitudes could affect how the body retains water, but 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's usually not serious unless it persists or reoccurs. In most instances, edema goes away on its own, but in more serious instances, diuretics can be used to expel the water. While there are no medications to prevent it, changes in diet, such as lowering salt intake, or the use of compression socks can help reduce the chances of it occurring. 

The question you've started to dig into is why you're retaining water. You stated that you believed that the differing climates between your home and San Francisco was the reason. It's possible that changes in temperatures to extreme heat or extreme cold may trigger fluid retention. However, water retention is most noted in instances of physical activity. Were you getting a lot of steps in while exploring "The City by the Bay?” While walking, blood flow is directed away from your extremities and towards your muscles to supply oxygen. As a result, the blood vessels in your hands and feet may open wider, or vasodilate, causing them to swell. To avoid future swelling caused by increased walking when on a trip, you may consider removing any rings, wristbands, or watches that might cut off your circulation further. Additionally, make sure to stay hydrated and carry fluids with you while you travel.

It's also possible that changes in dietary patterns while you traveled may have contributed to your water retention. For example, if trying local cuisines or changes from your typical eating habits resulted in increased salt and caffeine intake, it could have increased the likelihood of fluid retention. If you're struggling with edema, health care providers recommend avoiding alcohol and instead adding potassium- and magnesium-rich foods to your diet such as bananas and avocados. Another likely explanation for your swelling may be from the trek you took to get to San Francisco and back. Were you sitting in a car or airplane for a long period of time? Swelling in the legs and feet during travel is very common because sitting with your feet on the floor for a long time causes gravity to pool blood in the veins. This can hinder your body’s normal circulation process. To avoid edema caused by traveling, you may consider wearing loose fitting clothing, drink plenty of fluids, and get out of your seat every hour or so or change your seated position as much as possible to promote proper circulation.

This swelling usually goes away on its own after a few days as you return to a normal routine. However, if the swelling persists for a long time or reoccurs, it's wise to speak with a medical professional about the appropriate course of action. They will likely ask questions to help determine the cause of swelling as fluid retention could also be brought on by burns or sunburns, changes in hormones, stress, medications, or underlying medical conditions. The good news is there are medications to treat edema if it continues. Diuretics, such as furosemide, help the body expel excess fluid through urine. Lower sodium diets are also recommended to treat this condition. Nevertheless, it's still possible to continue to have fun and travel. Don't let a little water retention drag you down!

Last updated Feb 11, 2022
Originally published Mar 10, 2006

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