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Lymphedema is a build-up of lymph fluid in the fatty tissues just under your skin. This build-up might cause swelling and discomfort. It often happens in the arms or legs, but can also happen in the face, neck, trunk, abdomen (belly), or genitals.
It's important to know that lymphedema can sometimes become severe and cause serious problems, and often is a long-term or chronic condition. This is why early and careful management is needed to help reduce symptoms and keep it from getting worse.
The lymph (or lymphatic) system is part of your body's immune system. It is a network of lymph nodes, ducts or vessels, and organs that work together to collect and carry clear lymph fluid through the body tissues to the blood. This is much like how veins collect blood from distant parts of the body (like the hands and arms) and carry it back to the heart.
Lymphedema can occur when the lymph system is damaged, which can prevent the lymph fluid from returning to the blood. For people with cancer, the build-up of lymph fluid can be caused by:
It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of lymphedema, so it can be recognized and treated right away.
Common signs and symptoms of lymphedema can include:
Lymphedema often develops in the arms or legs when surgery or other treatment affects those areas, but it can develop in other parts of the body, too.
The severity of lymphedema is often described by its stage:
Stage 0: No swelling, but subtle symptoms such as feeling the affected area is heavy or full, or that the skin is tight
Stage 1: Swelling of the affected area. There is increased size or stiffness of the arm or leg or affected area. For the arms or legs, the swelling improves when the arm or leg is raised.
Stage 2: More swelling than stage 1, which does not improve when the arm or leg is elevated. The affected area is hard and larger in size than stage 1.
Stage 3: Much more swelling than stage 2. The swelling might be so severe that you cannot lift or move the arm or leg on your own without using your other arm. The skin can become very dry and thick. The swelling can cause fluid to leak from the skin or blisters to form.
There is more risk for infection in the affected area that is at the later stages, such as stage 2 or 3.
The early stages (stages 0 and 1) of lymphedema are often reversible, while the later stages (stages 2 and 3) tend not to respond as well to treatment. This is why it’s very important to see your health care provider as soon as you notice any concerning symptoms.
Cellulitis is an infection in the tissues just under your skin. It can lead to lymphedema. Cellulitis is an urgent medical problem that you need to tell your doctor about right away.
Signs and symptoms of cellulitis include redness, warmth, pain, and possibly cracking or peeling of the skin in the area that's infected. Fever and flu-like symptoms may also be present. If it becomes a repeated problem, antibiotics may be needed to keep it under control.
Lymphedema can also lead to cellulitis, so it is important to watch for signs and symptoms.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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National Lymphedema Network. Position paper: Healthy habits for patients at risk for lymphedema. Accessed at https://lymphnet.org/position-papers on September 10, 2019.
National Lymphedema Network. Position paper: Screening and measurement for early detection of breast cancer related lymphedema. December 2013. Accessed at https://lymphnet.org/position-papers-related on September 10, 2019.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Survivorship: Late effects/long-term psychosocial and physical problems. 2021. Version 1.2021. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/survivorship.pdf on April 19, 2021.
Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). Symptom interventions: Lymphedema. Accessed at https://www.ons.org/pep/lymphedema on January 3, 2020.
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Last Revised: May 25, 2021
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