Symptoms of lymphoedema

The main symptom of lymphoedema is swelling in all or part of a limb or another part of the body, which can cause problems fitting into clothes, or jewellery and watches starting to feel tight.

At first, the swelling may come and go. It may get worse during the day and then go down overnight. Without treatment, it will usually become more severe and persistent.

Other symptoms in an affected body part can include:

  • an aching, heavy feeling 
  • difficulty with movement 
  • repeated skin infections 
  • the skin becoming hard and tight 
  • folds developing in the skin 
  • wart-like growths developing on the skin 
  • a leakage of fluid through the skin 

When these symptoms start depends on what is causing the condition. 

If lymphoedema is caused by abnormal development of the lymphatic system (a network of channels and glands distributed throughout the body that remove unwanted bacteria and particles from the body), the symptoms can develop at any age, but most commonly start during infancy, adolescence or early adulthood.

In these cases, the swelling may start on one side of the body to begin with, although the other side will usually become swollen as well over time – particularly the lower leg.

If lymphoedema is caused by damage to the lymphatic system, the symptoms can develop at any time. For example, if your lymphatic system is damaged due to treatment for breast cancer, lymphoedema may not develop for several months or even years.

Read more about the causes of lymphoedema.

When to seek medical advice

If you are at risk of developing lymphoedema because you have had treatment for cancer, you may be offered an assessment for the condition as part of your treatment aftercare plan. Speak to your consultant or specialist nurse if you have any concerns.

If you think you may have lymphoedema, but not as a result of treatment for cancer, see your GP.

Read more about diagnosing lymphoedema.

Further information available on the NHS Choices website


Page last reviewed: 20/10/2014

Next review due: 20/10/2016