Last Updated on July 13, 2021
Ever woken up after a night of heavy drinking with swollen feet, ankles, or hands? If so, you may have been experiencing a condition called edema—swelling caused by water retention.
In most cases, this isn’t serious—swollen ankles after drinking usually go away in a day or two. But there is a strong connection between alcohol and edema, and if you experience this problem often, it could be a sign of a larger issue.
Read on to learn how edema works, how alcohol can cause it, and when you should be concerned about swollen feet after drinking.
Alcohol and Edema
Odds are, you’ve seen before and after photos of people who have quit drinking at some point. One striking difference is usually how much more swollen or bloated they look before vs after. While there are several reasons for this (alcohol can also cause stomach bloat and weight gain), one reason is the link between alcohol and edema.
What Is Edema?
Edema is excessive water retention in the body, which causes swelling and puffiness of different body parts. While edema is most common1 in the legs, ankles, and feet, it can occur elsewhere—including your face, hands, and stomach.
There are many causes of edema, including prolonged sitting, high salt intake, certain medicines, and some illnesses. But drinking alcohol, and especially heavy alcohol use, can also cause this issue.
Why Does Alcohol Cause Edema?
Edema, which is the opposite of dehydration, is triggered by alcohol’s dehydrating properties.
Alcohol blocks the release2 of antidiuretic hormone (ADH), also called vasopressin, which normally causes your kidneys to conserve fluids. Without enough ADH, you end up urinating more than usual, dehydrating your body. (Ever taken several trips to the bathroom when knocking back beers with friends?)
As your system strives to rebalance itself, it may go overboard and start retaining too much extra fluid. Dehydration may also lead to a higher concentration of sodium3 in your body, which also causes water retention. Hence, edema, swelling, and swollen feet or hands the morning after.
Since edema can affect your whole body, don’t be surprised if you also gain a few pounds when you step on the scale. With your body hoarding extra water, you may temporarily gain weight as well.
Does Wine Cause Water Retention?
Drinking too much of any kind of alcohol, including wine, can trigger the cycle of dehydration and water retention that causes swelling.
In fact, some studies4 show that beverages with a higher concentration of alcohol, such as wine and liquor, are more likely to lead to water loss and dehydration. It stands to reason that these beverages might also be more likely to cause edema the morning after.
When Is Edema a Sign of a Bigger Problem?
Swelling and puffiness after drinking alcohol should only take a day or two to go down. Prolonged swelling might be a sign of a bigger problem, such as pulmonary edema, liver damage, or heart problems, and should be checked by a doctor.
Pulmonary edema refers to excessive fluid buildup in the lungs, which can develop into acute respiratory distress syndrome. Studies show5 that chronic alcohol abusers are three times more likely to get pulmonary edema than those who are not alcohol dependent. It also takes longer for alcohol abusers to recover from this condition.
Edema, including swollen legs and feet, is also a symptom of advanced liver damage6, another possible consequence of excessive alcohol consumption. In addition to edema, liver damage can cause a condition known as ascites—the buildup of fluid in the abdomen. This causes a swollen stomach, along with shortness of breath, and possible bacterial infections.
In other words, in most cases swelling after drinking alcohol isn’t a big problem. But if it happens often, and especially if it doesn’t go away quickly, you should have it checked out.
How To Reduce and Avoid Edema
There are several steps you can take to avoid or deal with swollen feet and ankles after drinking:
- Always drink alcohol in moderation
- Avoid too much salty food
- Drink water in between alcoholic beverages to decrease dehydration
- Elevate your legs and wear compression socks if your ankles and feet swell
If you find that you get edema frequently due to your drinking habits, and have trouble cutting back, you might also consider an online program.
Ria Health offers comprehensive support to reduce or quit drinking from an app on your smartphone. Choose moderation or abstinence. Set your own goals, and get a plan customized to your unique needs. Find out how it works, or speak with a member of our team today.