Are your fingers beginning to look like a fresh sausage? Fear not! Fingers swell for a lot of reasons, and many of them harmless. But sometimes the puffiness, medically known as dactylitis, points to more serious health conditions. Here are some of the common causes of swollen fingers, and when you should call your doctor.
1. It’s really hot outside
Heat causes blood vessels to expand, which allows more heat to escape through your skin so you can keep cool. As the vessels stretch, some of their fluid can leak into your soft tissues and cause puffiness.
This type of swelling tends to go away as you use your hands and continue your regular activity. But if you notice swelling only in your hands and fingers (and not your legs), accompanied by pain or a weak grip, that could be a sign it’s not just the heat and you need to consult your doctor.
2. You’re eating too much salt
Chicken, lots of chips, or anything fried could be the cause behind your swollen fingers. Your body likes to keep a consistent salt-to-water balance, so when you down extra sodium, it compensates by retaining more water.
Typically, mild swelling brought on by salty foods goes away on its own within a day but it can last longer depending on how much extra salt is in your system. If you cut back on salt and the swelling persists, see your doctor.
3. You may have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
If it’s the bony finger joints themselves that are enlarged (say, you can’t get rings over your knuckles), osteoarthritis may be to blame, especially if your swollen fingers appear in the morning. This age-related form of arthritis is caused by the wearing down of the cushioning tissues at the end of your joints. Osteoarthritis is often, but not always, accompanied by pain and stiffness.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that attacks the lining of the joints, can also cause swelling. Unlike osteoarthritis, RA isn’t age-related and can happen to anyone at any age. Swelling in people with RA often happen in the wrists and finger joints.
4. An infection or injury could be to blame
Infections in your fingers, known as felons, cause your fingers (particularly around the tip, pad, or nail) to fill up with pus. Infections can form in different ways, but dishwashing without gloves, manicures, ingrown nails, hangnails, and biting your nails can all transfer bacteria to your fingers and lead to swelling, redness, and throbbing pain. Minor traumas and injuries, like cuts, puncture wounds, and splinters can also have similar effects.
When caught early, infections can be treated with warm water or saline soaks and antibiotic ointment, but if you’re in serious pain, have trouble using your finger, or notice any oozing pus, see your doctor ASAP, who can drain excess fluid and prescribe oral antibiotics if needed.
5. It could be a side effect of your tough workout
During exercise, your fingers and hands might swell because the blood vessels in your body are responding to the increased energy demands on your muscles.
6…or your medication
Certain medications can also cause swelling in the fingers and hands. High blood pressure drugs, OTC pain meds, diabetes medications, steroids, and birth control pills can all cause puffiness as a general side effect.
7. Pregnancy could be messing with your body
Some swelling is typical for expectant moms. But swelling in the hands and face—especially if pressing your thumb into your skin leaves a noticeable indentation—can be a red flag for preeclampsia, a complication characterized by high blood pressure.
If preeclampsia goes untreated, it can lead to organ damage, including the liver and kidneys. In addition to swelling, signs of preeclampsia include blurry vision, high protein in your urine, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. The risk of preeclampsia is highest in pregnant women older than 40 or those having their first child. It’s also common in women carrying twins or triplets, and those who are obese.