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Anasarca is the medical term for a condition that causes generalized swelling of the body. Check out this lesson to learn more about anasarca, its causes, and how to treat it when it occurs.

What Is Anasarca?

Anasarca is the medical term used to describe the general swelling of the whole body, usually due to abnormal fluid retention in the tissues. It differs from other conditions that cause swelling; with these, swelling would most likely be isolated to a particular region or part of the body. Anasarca may also be called a massive edema or generalized edema.

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The term edema means swelling. When anasarca is present, it’s usually a sign of a major sickness or infection in the body, meaning that it’s not to be taken lightly.


Edema (swelling), in general, is caused by abnormalities in blood vessels, water retention, and blockages in the lymphatic vessels. While there are many causes of swelling, the following list includes several of the more common ones:

  • Burns and sunburns
  • Excessive sodium (salt) consumption
  • Heart failure
  • Albumin deficiency
  • Pregnancy
  • Side effects of certain medications
  • Thyroid abnormalities

There are quite a few diseases or conditions that specifically cause anasarca. The following list includes many of these causes, though it is not exhaustive:

  • Congestive (chronic) heart failure
  • Eclampsia or pre-eclampsia
  • Hookworm
  • Liver failure due to cirrhosis
  • Kidney disease or kidney failure
  • POEMS syndrome
  • Extreme malnutrition
  • Extreme protein deficiency
  • Systemic amyloidosis (abnormal protein buildup in the organs)
  • Systemic capillary leak syndrome (also known as Clarkson syndrome)


The primary symptom of anasarca, by definition, is swelling all over the body. Fluids accumulate right under the skin, in what’s called the subcutaneous area. With anasarca, most or all of the body looks swollen or bloated.

In some cases, additional side effects may include pain and difficulty urinating, though this is usually only found in males. Localized swelling (edema) is not necessarily a life-threatening or serious condition; however, anasarca usually results from a serious condition and should be treated as soon as possible.

Treatment Options

Once anasarca is diagnosed, the underlying cause is typically identified and then treated. Anasarca is a symptom of another problem rather than a disease in itself. As a result, treatment options depend on the specific cause. Sometimes treatment may include increasing fluid intake, and sometimes it may include intentionally avoiding substances that can cause fluid retention, like salt and diuretics.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review.

Anasarca is generalized swelling (or edema) found all over the body. This is in contrast to localized swelling which occurs in only one part or region of the body. In addition to all-over swelling or bloating, a person may also experience pain.

Swelling is caused by the buildup, or retention, of fluids under the skin (called the subcutaneous region). There are a lot of conditions or diseases that may lead to anasarca, and usually if anasarca is present, it’s a sign of a serious health condition that needs immediate treatment. Once the underlying cause is identified, that condition can be treated, and eventually, anasarca will go away.

Anasarca: Vocabulary

Swelling in a patient with anasarca
  • Anasarca: a generalized swelling of the whole body caused by fluid retention in the subcutaneous region
    • Causes: heart disease, pregnancy, reaction to medications, malnutrition, burns, organ failure, several illnesses
  • Edema: swelling
  • Subcutaneous region: under the skin

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson ends, students should be able to:

  • Define anasarca
  • Recall the symptoms of anasarca
  • Describe some of the major causes of ansarca
  • Explain how anasarca is treated

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