Are Swelling Feet in Someone Who's Bed-Bound a Sign of Impending Death?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Is it true that an increase in swelling in the feet is a sign that death is nearing for someone who's bed-bound?

Expert Answer

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is the author of a popular blog and podcast at She is also a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics.

No, swelling isn't necessarily a sign of imminent death. In a bed-bound person, newly detected swelling is more likely due to one of the typical causes of edema. These can include:

  • A blood clot in the deep leg veins (deep vein thrombosis), if one foot is affected
  • A warning sign of decline in someone with heart failure, liver failure, or kidney failure
  • A skin infection
  • A medication side effect

Getting a prompt medical evaluation is important when there's new swelling on one or both lower legs. Be sure to note whether one or both feet are affected, whether the legs are also swollen, whether there's pain and if it's generalized or specific to one spot, and whether there's redness.

When death is hours away, one distinctive look to the feet and legs is that they may appear mottled. But the person is usually minimally responsive by that point and has a faint or absent pulse in the wrist. The condition of the feet isn't the best sign of imminent death.