Are Swollen Feet a Warning Sign?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My father's feet have become very swollen in recent months, and it's uncomfortable for him and worries me. Are swollen feet in an older adult normal or some kind of warning sign?

Expert Answer

Jane Andersen, DPM, is a board-certified podiatrist in private practice in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She provides surgical and nonsurgical foot and ankle care to all types of patients, including the geriatric population in her area. With the American Podiatric Medical Association, she has worked to educate the public on foot and ankle health.

Your father should discuss his condition with his doctor, but it's not an automatic cause for alarm. Although swollen feet aren't a normal part of aging, swelling does happen more commonly among older adults. Because swelling (edema) can have many causes, it's sometimes a warning sign of a problem -- but not always.

Dangerous causes of edema can include the following:

  • Heart, liver, or kidney disease

  • Cellulitis (a skin infection)

  • Chronic venous insufficiency (when leg veins are unable to pump enough blood back to your heart)

  • Deep venous thrombosis (a blood clot that forms deep in the body)

  • Charcot neuroarthropathy (or Charcot's neuroarthropathy; a progressive condition of the bones and joints of the foot that's characterized initially by inflammation)

Other possible causes include medication side effects or a chronic condition of the lymphatic system known as lymphedema, in which lymph fluid fails to drain properly from the legs and causes abnormal swelling. Behaviors as simple as sitting too long or eating a lot of salty foods can cause swelling, as well.

Caregivers or patients should seek medical attention for edema when:

  • There's a change, such as an increase in the swelling in one or both legs.

  • Swelling is accompanied by redness (in one area or overall).

  • Swelling is accompanied by pain.