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Lowering your risk of lymphoedema

There are many things you can do to lower your risk of lymphoedema after cancer treatment. There is information on this page about


A quick guide to what’s on this page

There are a number of things you can do to lower your risk of lymphoedema after cancer treatment.

Maintain a healthy weight – being very overweight (obese) can increase your risk of lymphoedema. Try to eat a healthy well balanced diet and exercise regularly.

Exercise – research suggests that building up the amount of exercise and movement may help to lower your risk of developing lymphoedema. Before you exercise you need to talk to your nurse, doctor or physiotherapist.

Skin care – Looking after your skin can help to lower your risk of lymphoedema. This is because any trauma such as cuts and infections can increase the risk. Tips include:

  • Keep skin clean and dry
  • Moisturise it
  • Wear insect repellent
  • If you scratch or burn yourself clean the area, apply antiseptic cream, and cover the area
  • If you are at risk of arm lymphoedema, wear oven gloves when using the oven and gardening gloves when gardening
  • If possible it is best to avoid injections in any area at risk of lymphoedema
  • Avoid having your blood pressure taken on an arm at risk of developing lymphoedema


CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About lymphoedema section.



Maintaining a healthy weight

Some research suggests that being very overweight (obese) can increase your risk of lymphoedema. Maintaining a healthy weight is part of being fit and well and is generally good for you. Try to eat a healthy well balanced diet and exercise regularly. There is information about healthy eating on the healthy living website.


Exercise to help lower your risk

Generally, research suggests that exercise and movement may help to lower your risk of developing lymphoedema. Most of what we know is from research into lymphoedema and breast cancer. It is important to gradually build up what you do and get advice if you are unsure. 

Before you exercise, talk to your physiotherapist if you have one. Or you can talk to your specialist doctor or nurse. They will tell you what you can and can’t do after the type of cancer treatment you’ve had. And they can let you know when you can start to exercise and how to build it up.

There is research showing that early physiotherapy after breast cancer surgery can help to reduce the number of women who develop lymphoedema. This includes exercises that build up movement over time.

Researchers in America looked into the effect of following an exercise programme, including weight lifting, after breast cancer treatment. Women followed the programme for a year. The first 13 weeks of the programme were supervised and then the women continued unsupervised for the rest of the year. The researchers found that weight lifting didn’t increase the risk of lymphoedema. And they suggested that it may lower the risk slightly.

Swimming can be a good exercise to do. You need to change the type of stroke you use so you don’t repeat the same movement all the time.

Aerobics is another good exercise but you need to build up gradually if you haven’t done it before. If you use a gym, you may be able to find a fitness instructor who has training in helping people who have cancer.

Other types of helpful exercise include Tai Chi, yoga, and water based exercise. But you need to find an instructor with training in working with people with cancer.


Skin care

Looking after your skin can help to lower your risk of lymphoedema. Any trauma, such as cuts and infections, can increase the risk. You should

  • Wash your skin gently and make sure you dry it completely
  • Moisturise your skin with a non perfumed lotion such as aqueous cream
  • Wear insect repellent to avoid bites and stings
  • Be careful when you cut your nails, to avoid cutting your skin
  • Be careful when removing body hair – using hair removal cream can be better than shaving
  • Avoid extremes of temperature, both hot and cold, including saunas, steam rooms and very hot baths or showers
  • If you scratch, cut or burn yourself, clean and dry the area and then apply an antiseptic lotion or cream
  • If you are at risk of developing arm lymphoedema, wear gloves when gardening and washing up
  • If you are at risk of developing arm lymphoedema, wear oven gloves to avoid burns when taking things in or out of the oven

Avoiding and dealing with infections

Try to avoid damaging your skin in any area of your body at risk of lymphoedema. Skin damage could lead to an infection. If you cut or burn yourself, clean the skin immediately under cool running water, dry it, use an antiseptic cream and cover the area with a plaster or dressing.

If the area becomes more swollen, sore, red and hot you may have an infection. Sometimes this shows as a spreading red area or red streaks along the limb. Contact your doctor or specialist nurse straight away, because you may need antibiotics immediately.


Avoiding injections

Most people are advised to avoid having injections and avoid having blood tests taken from any part of the body where they have had treatment for cancer. This is because there is anecdotal evidence that it can increase the risk of developing lymphoedema. Or it may cause an infection which can then go on to cause lymphoedema.

Research so far suggests that if injections are done properly under clean conditions it won’t increase your risk of lymphoedema. But we need more research to find out more about the causes of lymphoedema and why some people develop it and others don’t.

So, if possible it is probably best to avoid injections in the area. This is not always easy, especially if you are having treatment such as chemotherapy or if you need to have regular blood tests. It can become more difficult for the nurse or doctor to find a vein each time you have treatment.

You may need to explain to the health professional that you are at risk of developing lymphoedema. It can help to have an alert card or bracelet to show to the health professional and remind you about your risk. You can get alert cards or bracelets from the Lymphoedema Support Network (LSN).


Taking blood pressure

Some doctors and specialists advise that you shouldn’t have your blood pressure checked on an arm that is at risk of developing lymphoedema. This is because it may damage small vessels in the lymph system. But there is limited evidence to support this. Until we have more research it is best to avoid having your blood pressure checked on an arm on the side of your cancer treatment.


Air travel

People often worry about flying and whether that increases lymphoedema risk. The theory is that the air pressure inside the plane affects how lymph fluid moves through the lymphatic system. Research suggests that flying doesn’t increase the risk of lymphoedema developing. If you have had any early signs of lymphoedema, such as feelings of heaviness or tightness in a limb, or your rings or other jewellery becoming tight, you need to check with your doctor or nurse before flying.

Some specialists say that wearing a compression garment when you fly may help to prevent further problems if you have ever had swelling caused by cancer or treatment.

If you have never had any signs of lymphoedema there is some evidence to suggest that you shouldn’t wear compression garments. They may restrict the flow of lymph and increase the risk of swelling.

If you have lymphoedema, you need to wear a compression garment before, during, and for a few hours after your flight. This helps to stop the swelling becoming worse. You need to be measured for a compression garment by a properly trained specialist. The garment must fit properly without being too loose or too tight. A badly fitting garment can make lymphoedema worse.

When you fly, make sure that you move around as much as you can. Circling your ankles and moving your legs and arms while you are sitting will all help lymph fluid to circulate. Breathing deeply can also help. You can find information about deep breathing exercises in this section.

When you are on holiday try to

  • Avoid extremes of temperature and keep cool as much as possible
  • Avoid getting sunburnt
  • Use insect repellent
  • Look after your skin – keep it clean and moisturise it
  • Clean any cuts, use antiseptic cream, and cover the area
  • Look out for signs of infection such as redness, soreness, swelling and hotness
  • Drink plenty of water
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Updated: 1 April 2014