Factors that Can Make Lymphedema Worse
Triggers to Avoid Worsening Your Lymphedema
People living with a diagnosis of lymphedema know they must remain vigilant and take steps to control the symptoms—and progression—of their condition. Most patients will have received instructions about how to don and doff appropriate medical-grade compression wear. They may also have received instructions regarding the role of healthful diet, adequate exercise, and other lifestyle factors in managing this disease.
But what about factors that may actually make your condition worse? As it turns out, in addition to being proactive, taking charge of your condition, and doing certain helpful things, there are also things you should avoid doing.
Things to Avoid
Wounds, punctures, injections, bites or other disturbances to the affected area should be avoided whenever possible. Lymphedema-affected tissue is compromised tissue. The accumulation of lymph means the skin and tissue of the affected area is under significant stress. Immune function is somewhat compromised, and the skin in the affected area is especially susceptible to infection.
For this reason, it’s important to avoid further damage to affected skin. Breaks in the skin provide a direct route for bacteria or fungi to enter and take hold. Patients diagnosed with lymphedema should avoid any further damage to the integrity of the skin, therefore. If you need an immunization, ask that it be given in another area of the body, for example. If you need to have your blood drawn, ask that the phlebotomist use the opposite (unaffected) arm. And when venturing out in the morning or evening, consider applying appropriate mosquito repellent.
Research has consistently shown that only three chemicals actually work to repel blood-sucking insects (such as disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks) reliably and consistently. While some botanical extracts may repel for a few minutes, in order to be truly effective a repellent must remain effective for up to six hours.
Safe, effective repellents include DEET (up to about 30%), picaridin (derived from black pepper, this substance is newer, but also works well; up to about 30%), or oil of lemon eucalyptus. The latter is a botanical extract. It smells strongly of citronella, and thus may be objectionable to some people. Because it is a natural plant extract, it may also cause allergic reactions in some individuals. All three are protective for up to six hours or longer. Given the rise in dangerous diseases being transmitted by both mosquitoes and ticks, protection is no longer a matter of avoiding an annoyance. It could literally make the difference between health and serious disease.
Sunburn is just another form of damage to the skin. It goes without saying that allowing affected skin to get sunburned will not serve you. Wear appropriate attire, and apply a full-spectrum sunscreen generously if you will be out in the sun. Similarly, take steps to avoid heat-induced burns. Any damage to your affected skin can seriously affect your health.
Protect Against Cuts and Scrapes
Being active is productive. Getting cuts or scrapes to your skin as a result of that activity is not. If you enjoy gardening, for example, it’s important to wear protective gloves if you suffer from lymphedema of the arm and hand. Any small cut can serve as a route for the introduction of dangerous infection.
If you sustain any damage to the surface of the skin, wash it out immediately, and apply appropriate antibiotic dressings and coverings. No cut is too small to ignore when you are combatting the effects of lymphedema. If a cut shows any sign of infection (heat, redness, swelling) seek medical attention immediately. Do not ignore even the smallest indication of infection!
Managing one’s weight is another proactive step. Avoiding weight gain is crucial. Research indicates that overweight and obesity are risk factors for lymphedema. Losing weight if you are overweight is ideal. Not gaining more weight may be properly viewed as a minor victory.
Avoid Pro-inflammatory Foods
Some foods, such as ginger, are excellent sources of natural anti-inflammatory compounds. Whole grains, whole fruits, vegetables and fish are also anti-inflammatory. Even extra virgin olive oil contains anti-inflammatory compounds. In fact, the essential nutrients called omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish species such as salmon or tuna, are directly converted into important anti-inflammatory compounds in the body.
These compounds help put the brakes on runaway inflammation. In contrast, omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. They are present in many prepared foods (due to the inclusion of palm, soybean, or canola oils, etc.). To achieve a more inflammation-free state, it’s important to balance your intake of these two families of essential nutrients. Research shows that many Americans consume many more omega-6s than omega-3s. Take steps to balance your ratio, by supplementing with fish oil, avoiding red meat, and eating more fish and seafood.
By now it should go without saying that smoking is bad for your health. If you smoke, seek help with smoking cessation. Cigarette smoking affects everything from your immune system function to your cardiovascular health. Avoid it rigorously.
Gebauer SK, Psota TL, Harris WS, Kris-Etherton PM. n-3 fatty acid dietary recommendations and food sources to achieve essentiality and cardiovascular benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jun;83(6 Suppl):1526S-1535S.
Hibbeln JR1, Nieminen LR, Blasbalg TL, Riggs JA, Lands WE. Healthy intakes of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids: estimations considering worldwide diversity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jun;83(6 Suppl):1483S-1493S.