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Lifestyle Changes for Lymphedema

NYU Langone doctors may recommend lifestyle changes to ease the symptoms of lymphedema, a chronic condition. These changes can help reduce your risk of infection and fluid buildup and prevent symptoms from worsening.

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Avoid a Skin Infection

Proper skin care is important for people with lymphedema because a skin infection can worsen lymphedema symptoms. Your doctor may recommend that you apply an antiseptic lotion, which kills bacteria, on small cuts to avoid infection. He or she may also advise moisturizing your skin at least once a day, especially on the affected limb. Using a lotion that has a low pH level can reduce bacteria, in addition to soothing dry, cracked skin.

Additional recommendations may include wearing gloves when gardening, cooking, or doing housework, and, if you have lymphedema in a leg or foot, never walking barefoot, especially outdoors. When you need blood drawn or your blood pressure measured, make sure healthcare professionals know to avoid using the affected limb.

Experts at NYU Langone recommend applying insect repellent to prevent bug bites and using sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to avoid sunburn when outdoors. Use an electric razor when shaving underarms or legs to reduce the risk of cuts and infection in the area of swelling. Use a thimble when sewing, and do not cut cuticles during manicures; gently push them back instead.

Because high temperatures can promote swelling in your limbs, avoid hot baths, saunas, and steam rooms.

Avoid Tight Clothing and Shoes

Your doctor may recommend not wearing anything that feels too restrictive, unless prescribed. These garments include tight shoes and pants, because they can worsen symptoms by constricting your arm or leg. It’s also important not to wear jewelry that restricts your wrists or fingers. Bras should be supportive but not tight, and you should use the unaffected arm to carry your handbag.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Obesity, which is defined as having a body mass index of 30 or greater, can worsen the swelling associated with lymphedema, particularly in the legs. Excess weight can put pressure on lymph nodes in the groin, contributing to a backup of fluid.

Obesity can also increase the risk for cellulitis, a skin infection that occurs when bacteria spreads to deep skin tissues, causing flu-like symptoms—such as fever, chills, and muscle aches—and that requires antibiotics. Left untreated, it can progress to a dangerous infection that affects the entire body.

Experts at NYU Langone’s Weight Management Program can help you reach a healthy weight through exercise and diet.

Reduce Sodium Intake

Salt causes the body to retain fluid, and consuming too much can worsen lymphedema symptoms. Your doctor may refer you to an NYU Langone dietitian, who can help you create a healthful, low-sodium diet.

Elevate Affected Limbs

Raising the affected limbs can help reduce swelling. Your doctor may recommend that you rest the affected arm on a pillow above the level of your heart or elevate your legs when you lie down. If you are sitting, make sure you have good circulation in the area of swelling by avoiding crossing your legs, and by changing your position every 30 minutes.

Our Research and Education in Lymphedema

Learn more about our research and professional education opportunities.