Edema and the tropics
Facharzt fur Allgemeine Medizin FMH und Tropen- und Reisemedizin FMH, Mittlere Strasse 3, CH-3600 Thun.
People visiting or living in tropical or subtropical regions are exposed to various factors, which can lead to edema. Tourists staying for only a short time in the tropics are exposed to different risks, with other disease patterns, than people living in the tropics or immigrants from tropical regions. The differential diagnosis of edema and swelling is extensive and it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish classical edema with fluid retention in the extravascular interstitial space, from lymphedema or swelling due to other aetiologies. The patients often connect the edema to their stay in the tropics although it may have been pre-existing with no obvious relation to their travels.
Already the long trip in the plane can lead to an "economy class syndrome" due to deep venous thrombosis. Contacts with animal or plant toxins, parasites or parasitic larvae can produce peripheral edema. The diagnosis can often only be made by taking a meticulous history, checking for eosinophilia and with the help of serological investigations. Chronic lymphedema or elephantiasis of the limbs is often due to blocked lymph vessels by filarial worms. It has to be distinguished from other forms as e.g. podoconiosis due to blockage by mineral particles in barefoot walking people.
The trend to book adventure and trekking holidays at high altitude leads to high altitude peripheral edema or non-freezing cold injuries such as frostbites and trench foot. Edema can be an unwanted side effect of a range of drugs e.g. nifedipine, which is used to prevent and treat high altitude pulmonary edema. Protein malnutrition, (Kwashiorkor), and vitamin B6 deficiency, (Beri-Beri) are very rarely observed in immigrants and almost never in tourists. A very painful swelling of fingers and hands in children and young adults of African origin can be observed during a sickle cell crisis.
Many protein loosing nephropathies connected with plant and animal toxins but also bacterial, viral or parasitic agents, can lead to edema. But very often edema in tourists or immigrants from the tropics is not related to their stay abroad. To take an accurate history of the itinerary, eating habits and exposure to water etc. is very important. Knowledge of the precise epidemiology and geographic distribution of diseases are essential.
PMID: 15605460 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]