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What are swollen ankles and feet a sign of?

Medically reviewed by Sally Chao, MD. Last updated on April 16, 2021.

Official Answer

by Drugs.com

Swollen ankles and feet can be a sign of many different conditions. This type of swelling often has a harmless cause, like sitting or standing for too long or getting stung by an insect. An injury like an ankle sprain can also cause swelling.

Foot and ankle swelling without injury is called edema. This means the swelling is due to an abnormal accumulation of fluid in a certain part of the body. Edema often develops in the lower legs, especially in older adults and pregnant women.

Potential causes of edema in the lower legs include:

  • Standing or sitting for a long time (often when traveling)
  • Eating foods that contain a lot of salt
  • Pregnancy
  • Hormonal changes in women related to the menstrual cycle
  • Insect bites or stings
  • Taking certain medications (including some antidepressants, blood pressure medicines, birth control pills, estrogen, testosterone and steroids)
  • Damaged leg veins that cannot pump blood back to the heart (venous insufficiency)
  • A blood clot in the deep veins of the lower leg (deep vein thrombosis). This usually affects only one leg.
  • Kidney, liver or heart problems (which can impair blood flow and cause swelling)
  • An infection

Sometimes swollen feet and ankles can be a sign of a serious medical problem. Call 911 or get medical attention right away if:

  • You are short of breath.
  • You have chest pain.

Also call your doctor if:

  • Your condition does not improve after a few days.
  • Edema gets worse, especially if you have heart or kidney problems.
  • You have liver disease, and your legs and abdomen are swollen.
  • You also have a fever.
  • You are pregnant and develop sudden and severe edema.

Sometimes steps you take at home are enough to reduce swelling in your ankles and feet. Home care tips for easing swelling include:

  • Elevate your legs with pillows in bed.
  • Walk or gently exercise your legs to encourage blood flow.
  • Reduce the amount of salt you eat.
  • Do not sit or stand for long periods at a time.
  • Do not wear tight clothing or shoes that restrict blood flow to your legs or feet.
  • Lose weight if needed.

Call your doctor if these don't help.

References
  1. American Academy of Family Physicians. Edema. April 24, 2020. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/condition/edema/. [Accessed March 26, 2021].
  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Foot, leg, and ankle swelling. April 26, 2019. Available at: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003104.htm. [Accessed March 26, 2021].
  3. National Health Service. Swollen ankles, feet and legs (oedema). November 14, 2018. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/oedema/. [Accessed March 26, 2021].
  4. UpToDate. Patient education: Edema (swelling) (beyond the basics). November 21, 2019. Available at: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/edema-swelling-beyond-the-basics. [Accessed March 26, 2021].

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