What is anasarca?

Definition: It is a severe form of edema wherein the inflammation affects various parts of the body or even the entire body.

Anasarca is not a disease but is actually a symptom of a much worse disease. Hence, it should be given the right medical attention to find out the root cause of the problem. (1, 2)

Causes, Signs and Symptoms

The typical clinical manifestations include the following:

  • Inflammation of the hypodermis (subcutaneous tissue beneath the skin’s surface containing fluid)
  • Edema spread in various parts of the body
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Reduction in the urine output (2, 3)

The possible causes of anasarca include the following:

  • Disorders involving the liver, kidney, and heart
  • Side effects of medications such as blood thinning agents
  • Autoimmune disease like lupus
  • Too much hydrostatic pressure that pushes the fluid into the tissue spaces and the osmotic pressure is not enough to pull the fluids into the other side of the vessel.
  • Anasarca happens when the body retains a large quantity of fluid for a long period of time. (2, 3, 4)

Anasarca Pictures

A patient with severe edema (pitting type).image

Photo 1: A patient with severe edema (pitting type)
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A severe form of anasarca in a neonate

Image 2: A severe form of anasarca in a neonate patient.
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A comparison image of a normal foot and a foot with severe swelling (anasarca).imagePicture 3: A comparison image of a normal foot and a foot with severe swelling (anasarca).
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How does hypoalbuminemia cause anasarca?

Patients with hypoalbuminemia is prone to anasarca as a result of low osmotic pressure in the capillaries. What is osmotic pressure? It is the pulling force that keeps the fluid inside the blood vessels.

A low osmotic pressure could result to fluid leak out of the interstitium causing edema. You will experience generalized edema or swelling of the body. Anasarca is usually in the form of pitting edema.

The swelling starts in the lower extremities, especially the ankles and feet. Periorbital edema (swelling around the eyes) is also visible. (4, 5)

Anasarca is common in people with diabetes mellitus. Patient with diabetes also suffers from hypertension and hyperglycemia, which affect the glomeruli of the kidneys. What it does is it increases the basement membrane leading to the enlargement of the glomeruli.

It would lead to the development of Kimmelstiel-Wilson nodules, which will then block the glomerular blood flow and damage the cells in the kidneys. It could also lead to the presence of protein in the urine (proteinuria). If left untreated, it could lead to fatal condition such as renal failure. (4, 6, 7)

How to diagnose anasarca?

Diagnosing anasarca can be quite difficult because its clinical manifestations are similar to other disorders. To correctly diagnose the problem, the doctor will conduct a series of blood test as well as other types of diagnostic procedures.

The doctor will first find out if the edema is localized or generalized. An edema that is localized or confined in a specific area is easier to treat than a generalized edema. (7)

The doctor will conduct a series of tests to check your level of albumin so as to rule out hypoalbuminemia. Any abnormalities in the albumin level is an indicator of nephrosis, liver cirrhosis, malnutrition, and other fatal diseases.

The doctor will also conduct another test to find out if you are suffering from chronic heart disease of impending heart failure. The doctor will also check if you are taking any medications. Some medications can cause edema. Examples of those drugs are steroids, blood pressure medications, and estrogen pills. (8, 9, 10)

Anasarca Treatment Options

Anasarca is not a disease, but a clinical manifestation of a severe disease condition. You cannot directly treat anasarca. What you can do is to treat the underlying cause for only then will anasarca be resolved.

Hence, it is important to correctly diagnose the condition so that the doctor will be able to come up with the best possible treatment. It is important to diagnose the condition at an early stage for the treatment to be effective. (10)

Take a look at the following possible causes and what you can do about it.

  • Congestive heart failure/kidney disease/liver disease – to relieve the inflammation and edema of the body, it is important to regulate the level of sodium in the bloodstream. The patient is strongly advised to reduce the intake of sodium. The patient is also placed in hemodialysis and diuretics. Other treatment modalities are used to treat the underlying cause. (2, 3)
  • Malnutrition – If malnutrition is the cause of anasarca, the doctor will modify the diet of the patient. The patient is put on a high calorie, fiber, and protein diet to significantly improve the health of the patient. In some instances, a nutrient shot is given to the patient to help improve the patient’s condition faster.
  • Burns and thyroid disease – An overactive thyroid can also be one of the culprits of anasarca. The best approach is to put the patient in a thyroid replacement therapy. If the cause of anasarca is burns, the patient’s fluid intake will be increased so as to keep the patient hydrated and facilitate the regeneration of electrolyte. (6, 7)
  • Drug-induced anasarca – if anasarca is a side effect of a particular drug, then the best approach is to discontinue the drug. Sometimes, it is best to wean off the drug under the supervision of a medical provider.

Although anasarca is not an actual disease but a symptom of a serious disease, still it needs to be managed or else it could lead to even worst condition. If the condition gets worse, then it would be extremely difficult to treat the underlying cause. The key to successful treatment is diagnosing the root cause at an early stage.

Hence, you need to be extremely caution with your health. If you notice that something is not right in your body, then you need to contact your doctor right away. The doctor is the right person to assess your condition. The doctor will come up with a plan of action that suits best for your condition. (1, 4, 10)



Published on by under Diseases and Conditions.
Article was last reviewed on October 3rd, 2017.

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