Anasarca is a generalized swelling across the entire body seen in patients who are severely ill. It is a form of edema, swelling caused by leakage of cellular fluid, and may vary in intensity. Some patients have only low-level swelling and experience mild discomfort, while others may be significantly and visibly swollen, with pain caused by the edema. Treatment options rely on addressing the underlying cause and providing supportive care to make the patient more comfortable.
Common causes of anasarca include organ failure and malnutrition. Congestive heart failure, kidney failure, and liver failure are all known to lead to edema, as they interfere with the circulation and expression of fluid in the body. Bad drug reactions can also sometimes cause this symptom, as can an excessive administration of intravenous fluid. Patients are monitored carefully if edema is a potential complication of medical treatment so anasarca can be identified quickly and addressed.
The swelling usually starts with the torso and can spread to the extremities. The swollen skin should be cool to the touch, and will pit, meaning that when a finger is pressed into the skin, the dimpled shape left behind will remain in place, with the skin not springing back. The decreased skin elasticity seen with anasarca can also be associated with dry, flaking skin. The whole body swelling may cause clothes to fit uncomfortably, and when undressing, patients may notice lines and streaks from where their garments pressed against swollen tissue during the day.
If anasarca develops, it indicates that management of the underlying medical issue is not adequate and the treatment plan needs to be adjusted. In patients awaiting treatments like transplants, this form of edema is a sign of worsening symptoms and an increased urgency in the need for a donor organ. Diuretic medications can be used to try and express some of the fluid, and compression garments may be used to manage the swelling and keep the patient more comfortable. This treatment must be overseen by a doctor, as complications can arise when managing edema too quickly or aggressively.
Some swelling of the tissues, especially the extremities, is very common in the heat. People who notice mild swelling without other symptoms on a hot day should notice that the swelling goes down in cooler temperatures. If swelling persists even when it is not hot or patients develop symptoms like shortness of breath, it can be a sign of a medical issue and it should be addressed.