Approach to a Child with Edema

Before beginning the clinical approach to a child with edema, it is necessary to understand the basics of fluid compartments, starling forces and technique of eliciting edema.

Life threatening causes of Edema:


  1. Cardiac disease
    • Congestive Heart Failure
    • Pericardial effusion
  2. Renal disease
    • Nephrosis
    • Nephritis
  3. Hepatic failure


  1. Allergic reaction with airway involvement
  2. ACE inhibitor induced angioedema
  3. Cellulitis
  4. Group A Streptococcus with Varicella
  5. Snake bite
  6. Thrombophlebitis

Approach to edema


1. Common causes:

FeverLocal tendernessLocal warmthLesion/color
Allergic reactionNoNoYesErythematous
InfectionUsuallyYesYesErythematous or Violaceous

A therapeutic response to an oral antihistamine or an intramuscular dose of epinephrine can help to differentiate an allergic reaction from other causes.

2. Other Aids to Diagnosis:

  • Bilateral upper eyelid edema: Infectious mononucleosis (Hoagland’s sign)
  • Severe or recurrent facial edema with positive family history: Hereditary angioedema
  • Acute facial edema with cyanosis or plethora: SVC obstruction
  • Other causes of facial edema: Oral, dental or sinus infections
  • History of environmental exposure: Sunburn, frost-bite, plant-induced dermatitis
  • Infant with unexplained localized swelling of extremity since birth:
    • Birth trauma
    • Congenital lymphedema (Milroy’s disease)
    • Turner’s syndrome (Bilateral limb edema)
    • Noonan’s syndrome (Pedal edema)
  • Swollen and painful digits (dactylitis): Sickle cell anemia
  • Weightlifting, OCPs: Thrombophlebitis or DVT


A. History:

Age of onsetNewbornvs Older children
Mode of onsetSudden (<72 hrs)- Acute Nephritis, Allergic reaction
Site and evolutionLegs → Face → Ascites (Cardiac)Ascites → Legs → Face (Hepatic)

Face → Legs → Ascites (Renal)
Acute edema of face and neck – SVC obstruction

TimingIncrease in morning – HypoproteinemiaIncrease in evening – Congestive cardiac failure
ExposureMedications,Danders, Food preservatives – Allergic reaction
Nutritional historyLow protein intake – PEM
Past/Allergic historySore throat and joint pain – Rheumatic carditis
Neonatal umbilical vein sepsis or Umbilical vein catheterization – Hepatic cause
Chronic illnesses, Persistent diarrhea – PEMMilk allergy, Gluten sensitivity – Protein losingenteropathy
Associated symptomsSignificance
Orthopena, PND, Noisy breathing, Poor weight gain, Feeding difficulties, Bluish episodesCardiac cause
Yellowish discoloration, Dark urine, Black tarry stool, Pain/lump in abdomen, Itching, PetechiaeHepatic cause
Rashes, joint painConnective tissue disorders
Nausea, vomiting, retarded growthUremia
Frothy urineNephrotic syndrome
Blood in urine, decreased urineNephritic syndrome
Anorexia, lethargy, diarrhea, vomiting, decreased growth, frequent infections, night blindnessMalnutrition
Cow milk intake, foul diarrhea, recurrent abdominal pain, frequent infectionsProtein losing enteropathy

B. General Physical Examination

Tachycardia, Prolonged CRTCardiac diseases
HypertensionAcute Nephritic Syndrome
TachypneaPulmonary edema
Raised JVPCongestive cardiac failure
Altered consciousness
Hepatic Encephalopathy
Hypertensive Encephalopathy (Renal)
AsterixisHepatic encephalopathy
PallorAnemia, Malnutrition
Icterus, spider angioma, other stigmataChronic Hepatic diseases
Cyanosis and clubbingCongenital Heart Disease
Flag sign, Bitot’s spot, Stomatitis, Muscle wasting, Dehydration, HypothermiaMalnutrition
Abnormal anthropometryMalnutrition

C. Systemic Examination – Diagnostic Aids

  1. Gallop, Tachycardia, Tachypnea, Inspiratory crackles or Hepatomegaly: Cardiac disease
  2. Pericardial rub, Pulsusparadoxus, Muffled heart sounds, Jugular venous distension: Pericardial effusion
  3. Hepatosplenomegaly and Ascites: Hepatic cause (If no icterus – exclude portal vein thrombosis)
  4. Hepatomegaly (fatty liver): Malnutrition


  1. Urine dipstick and microscopy:
    • Proteinuria, casts and hematuria are indicative of renal disease
  2. Renal function test and electrolytes:
    • Raised serum urea and creatinine are indicative of renal disease
    • Hyperkalemia, Hypokalemia, Hyperphosphatemia, Hypocalcemia
  3. Full Blood Count and Peripheral Blood Smear

anemia morphology

    • normochromic normocytic anaemia suggest chronic disease
    • hypochromic microcytic anaemia suggest iron deficiency from occult gastrointestinal bleeding i.e. cows milk allergy
    • megaloblastic anaemia suggest vitamin B12 and folate deficiency from small bowel disease
    • eosinophilia suggest angioedema or protein losing enteropathy
  1. Liver function test (LFT)
    • Hypoalbuminaemia in the absence of circulatory overload suggests hypoproteinaemic states
    • Hyperbilirubinaemia and transaminitis suggest liver disease
  2. Chest X-ray and electrocardiogram
    • Cardiomegaly with prominent perihilar vascular marking and left ventricular hypertrophy confirms intravascular fluid overload
    • ST elevation with t wave inversion (Pericarditis)
    • ECG can provide clue to other causes of heart failure


Depending upon the most likely cause

  1. Cardiac cause: Echocardiography
  2. Nephrotic syndrome: 24 hour urine protein, Urine protein to creatinine ration, Fasting lipids, Screen for secondary causes e.g. SLE, Hepatitis B
  3. Nephritic syndrome: Serum complements, Screen for secondary causes e.g. Streptococcal infection, SLE, IgA nephropathy
  4. Chronic Liver Disease: Screen for underlying cause, Assess complication e.g. Hyperammonemia, Coagulopathy
  5. Cow’s milk allergy: FAST test for cow milk IgE, Patch test, Jejunal biopsy
  6. Gluten hypersensitivity: Anti-gliadinIgG/IgA, Anti-endomysialIgA, Jejunal biopsy
  7. Malnutirtion: Blood glucose, Septic screening, Stool & urine for parasites & germs, Electrolytes, Ca, Ph & ALP, serum proteins, CXR & Mantoux test, Exclude HIV & malabsorption


  1. First principle: Reversing the primary disease
  2. Second principle: Restore hemodynamics and cardiac output


  1. Insect bite reaction:
    • Anti-histamine
    • Anti-inflammatory (topical corticosteroid)
  2. Local infection:
    • Incision and drainage
    • Wound dressing
    • Antibiotics



1. Bed rest

  • Decrease peripheral pooling
  • Augment blood volume in central circulation
  • Increases cardiac output, renal and hepatic perfusion
  • Increases sodium diuresis

2. Sodium restriction

  • 1-1.5 mEq/kg/day
  • Avoid salty foods

3. Water balance

  • Daily intake = Urinary loss + Insensible water loss
  • When diuresis occurs, avoid water restriction

Diuretic therapy:

diuretics mechanism

1. Loop diuretics (Furosemide/Lasix)

  • 1-2 mg/kg/day (IV/IM/PO)
  • Note: higher doses are required in acute glomerulonephritis or chronic renal impairment
  • Side effects- hyponatremia, hypokalemia, metabolic alkalosis

2. Hydrochlorothiazide

  • In steroid resistant Nephrotic syndrome
  • 0.5-2 mg/kg/day P.O.

3. Spironolactone

  • Initial therapy in edema of liver cirrhosis
  • 1 to 3 mg/kg/day P.O.

Specific treatment:

1. Nephrotic syndrome:

  • Prednisolone
    • 1st 6 weeks: 2mg/kg/day on daily basis
    • Next 6 weeks: 1.5 mg/kg/day; morning dose on alternate days
  • Nephrotic diet
  • IV albumin (sodium poor; slow infusion) with diuretics for severe oedema
  • Steroid sparing agents in steroid dependent/resistant cases

2. Acute Glomerulonephritis:

  • Diuretics (first line)
  • I.V. Anti-hypertensives (Nifedipine, Diazoxide)
  • Dialysis in severe cases
  • Treat underlying cause

3. Chronic liver disease:

  • IV albumin with diuretics for severe oedema
  • Liver failure management

4. Cardiac failure:

  • Diuretics
  • Salt and fluid restriction
  • Digoxin
  • Treat arrhythmias

5. Cow’s milk allergy:

  • Avoid cow’s milk
  • Consider soy based formula
  • Treat iron deficiency

6. Gluten hypersensitivity:

  • Gluten free diet
  • Treat iron deficiency

7. Malnutrition:

PEM treatment


  1. Localized edema is commoner than Generalized
  2. Commonest cause of edema in children:
    • Generalized: Idiopathic nephrotic syndrome
    • Localized: Allergic reaction
  3. Most children will have a benign diagnosis and self-limited course
  4. General measures for treatment include management of primary disease, bed rest, Na+ restriction and Diuretic administration.
  5. Most reliable index of progression of treatment of edema is daily alteration of body weight.


2nd Batch, KIST Medical College

Shraddha Shrestha
Shuveccha Pandey
Srijana Shakya
Sulabh Shrestha
Surakshya Raymajhi

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