Managing lymphoedema

Management of lymphoedema aims to:

  • reduce and control swelling
  • help with discomfort
  • stop fluid build-up.

It should make the affected area less swollen, easier to move and feel more comfortable. Sometimes, it may take several weeks or months before you notice much improvement.

Your lymphoedema specialist will talk to you about the best way to manage your situation. You will usually have a combination of treatments, as they work better when used together.

The main ways to manage lymphoedema are:

You may have other treatments, including taping and surgery. But these are less common.

These treatments usually help reduce lymphoedema, wherever it is in the body. Your lymphoedema specialist will explain the best way of managing lymphoedema in areas of the body that are more difficult to treat. This includes the breast or chest, head and neck area, and the genitals.

To start with, you may have regular treatment from your lymphoedema specialist. After this, the specialist will talk to you about how you can manage the lymphoedema yourself.

Avoiding pressure on the area

Your lymphoedema specialist will also advise you to avoid pressure on the area. This is because it can affect the flow of lymph fluid. This depends on which part of the body is affected.

If possible, you should avoid the following:

  • Having your blood pressure taken in the affected arm, unless it is an emergency. If you have lymphoedema in both arms you can switch between left and right arm each time.
  • Wearing tight jewellery such as rings, watches, bracelets, ankle bracelets or toe rings.
  • Wearing tight clothing such as tops with tight armholes, tight waist bands or tight bra straps.

You should try to find a well-fitting bra with a wide shoulder strap and deep sides. This can help give support and make you feel more comfortable.

You should also avoid having needles in the affected arm when possible, for example having injections or blood samples taken. This can help avoid infection from areas of broken skin.

Self-managing lymphoedema

Learning how to manage lymphoedema yourself is the main part of treatment. This means you have fewer hospital appointments. It also gives you more control over when to do your lymphoedema treatment, so you can fit it into daily life.

After your lymphoedema specialist has assessed you, they will discuss the best way to manage the lymphoedema. You will usually have a combination of treatments.

You need to do the treatments regularly to get the best results. Your specialist will tell you how often to do them. You can slowly add your lymphoedema care into your daily routine.

Family or friends often want to help, and there may be practical things they can do. They may be able to help with tasks you find difficult because of the swelling. They could also help you with your compression garment or give you a simple lymphatic drainage massage.

Lymphoedema in areas that are difficult to treat

Lymphoedema is most common in an arm or a leg. But it can affect different parts of the body. This depends on which lymph nodes have been removed or affected.

As with treatment for arm or leg lymphoedema, good skin care is important. Exercising, keeping to a healthy weight and taking good care of yourself are also important. Your specialist will explain the best way of managing and treating lymphoedema in other parts of your body.

Breast or chest lymphoedema

Clothing, bras and prostheses

Clothes that are too tight can stop lymph fluid draining. These can include bras, vests, or anything with a tight waistband.

You should make sure your bra is not too tight around the chest. The straps should not dig into your shoulders or under the arm. Try wearing a bra that has wide and flexible shoulder straps and bands around the chest. It is also important to make sure you have the right cup size. Your lymphoedema specialist can advise you on getting measured correctly.

Some breast prostheses are very heavy. This can cause pressure to the chest area, making the shoulder straps on a bra dig in. If you need to wear a prosthesis, try to get a lightweight one. Your lymphoedema specialist or breast care nurse can advise you about bras and breast prostheses.

Compression bras and vests

If you have breast or chest lymphoedema, your specialist can give you compression bras and specialist vests. You often need to have these made specially for you, so that they fit properly. It can also be helpful to wear a sports bra.

You may need to wear a compression sleeve. This is to stop fluid moving from one area to another. It can also help improve drainage. You do not often have compression bandaging to treat lymphoedema in the breast or chest area.

Lymphatic drainage (MLD and SLD)

You may have manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) and simple lymphatic drainage (SLD) to treat breast and chest lymphoedema.

Your lymphatic drainage therapist can give you more information about this.

Genital lymphoedema

It is important to look after your skin and keep it clean. Skin infections can be more common in the genital area. Genital lymphoedema is usually treated with MLD or SLD.

You may have specially made compression garments. These can be padded to protect swollen areas. Sports clothing or shapewear underwear containing Lycra® may also help. This will depend on how much swelling there is.

Pelvic floor and tummy (abdominal) exercises, combined with deep breathing exercises can help reduce swelling. Your lymphoedema specialist can show you how to do these.

If you have swelling in the scrotum, your specialist may give you a scrotal support. They may use bandaging if the penis is swollen.

Your specialist can tell you more about what might be helpful in your situation. Occasionally, you may have surgery to treat genital lymphoedema. Your doctor will discuss this with you.

Head and neck lymphoedema

You can usually manage lymphoedema of the face, neck or head with MLD and SLD. Sometimes, you can have Kinesio® taping (see below). You may have special low-pressure compression garments to use in this area of the body. But you should never have compression to the neck area. You sometimes have surgery to treat lymphoedema of the eyelids.

Other treatments

Sometimes, you may have other treatments alongside skin care, keeping active, positioning of the limb or area, compression and lymphatic drainage.

Some of the following treatments are new, and more research is needed to find out how well they treat lymphoedema. Your lymphoedema specialist will know how helpful these treatments might be for you and where you can have them.

  • Lymphoedema taping (Kinesio® taping)

    This is a special taping technique that is mainly used to treat sports injuries. It is also sometimes used to treat lymphoedema.

    The tape is made of an elastic cotton material. When the tape is stretched and stuck onto the skin, it gently lifts the top layer of skin. This allows the lymph fluid closest to the surface of the skin to flow more easily. The tape is water resistant, and you can wear it for several days at a time. You usually have this to treat areas where it is difficult to use compression.

    The tape is not available on prescription, so you will need to buy it yourself. Your lymphoedema specialist can tell you whether this might be helpful in your situation. They can tell you where to buy the tape from, and advise you on how to use it.

  • Surgery

    You may have surgery for lymphoedema, but it is rare. You may have it to reduce swelling around the face or genital areas. Or you may have surgery to reduce the size of an affected limb. Surgeons will do this by removing the skin and some tissue underneath.

    Doctors may also use specialised surgical techniques to move lymph nodes from one area to another. Or they can move lymph vessels, so that they drain into other lymph vessels or nearby veins. This helps to drain the affected area. These are new treatments in the UK and are not widely available.

    You may be able to have liposuction to treat lymphoedema in limbs. Liposuction is when a surgeon makes a number of small cuts in the skin. They then remove swollen, fatty tissue through these cuts using a vacuum. After the operation, you have a compression bandage. You should also keep the limb raised for a few days.

    About 2 weeks after the operation, a lymphoedema specialist or nurse will remove your bandages. They will give you a compression garment that you need to wear long term. This is to reduce the risk of the swelling returning.

  • Laser therapy

    This treatment uses a laser to target cells in the lymphatic system. It aims to improve the flow of lymph fluid, soften hard tissue, reduce swelling and stop it from getting worse. Research is happening to find out more about its possible benefits. At the moment, it is not widely available.

Managing problems caused by lymphoedema

Infection (cellulitis)

It is important to know the signs of an infection. An infection in the skin is called cellulitis. Getting treatment for an infection as soon as possible puts less stress on the lymphatic system. This can stop lymphoedema getting worse.

If you get cellulitis, the area may become:

  • red and hot
  • painful
  • more swollen.

You may also:

  • have red streaks going up or down from the infected area
  • have a high temperature (fever)
  • feel generally unwell, like you are getting the flu.

If you have any of these signs, contact your GP straight away. They will usually prescribe a course of antibiotics, which you should start straight away. If it happens in the evening or over the weekend, do not wait to see your GP and call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.

You should also contact your lymphoedema specialist. They will usually tell you to stop all lymphoedema treatment until the infection is treated.

Some people with lymphoedema get fungal infections in areas where there are skin folds. For example, your groin, in between the toes, underneath the breasts or any area where you sweat a lot. If you think you have a fungal infection, contact your GP.

Do not wear any compression garments if you have a skin infection and it is painful. Contact your lymphoedema specialist for advice. Rest the swollen area in a comfortable position. For example, you could support the whole limb with a pillow. You should not exercise until the infection has gone.

You should wear your compression garment again as soon as you start feeling better and it is comfortable. You should wear it even if you are taking antibiotics.

Managing infection

In the UK, there is guidance for healthcare professionals on using antibiotics to treat cellulitis when you have lymphoedema. The guidance is written by a group of lymphoedema specialists. It is important your GP follows this guidance when prescribing antibiotics for lymphoedema.

The guidance is available from the British Lymphology Society.

It is also important to rest, and keep the affected area raised. You should remove compression garments if they are painful. You should not wear them until it is comfortable again. You may need pain relief from your doctor.

Some people with cellulitis need to go to hospital to have antibiotics as a drip (infusion) into a vein. This is called intravenous treatment. This normally happens when cellulitis is more severe, or becomes worse after taking antibiotics at home.

Treating lymph fluid leaking from the skin (lymphorroea)

Lymphorroea is when lymph fluid leaks from the skin in the affected area. It is not common, but can happen when:

  • an area is very swollen
  • the skin is very dry
  • the area of swelling is difficult to treat, for example the genital area
  • there is a break in the skin
  • a blister filled with lymph fluid appears on the surface of the skin and breaks.

It is important to take good care of your skin. If you have lymphorroea, keep the area clean. The broken skin can easily cause an infection, such as cellulitis.

You should see a lymphoedema specialist as soon as possible if you have lymphorroea. They will try to stop the skin from leaking. If you cannot get hold of your lymphoedema specialist, contact your GP or district nurse.

The specialist can show you ways of managing lymphorroea at home. It may also help you to have some light bandaging. This can reduce swelling in an area that is difficult to manage with a compression garment.

Here are some things you can do while waiting to see a specialist:

  • Keep the skin clean and look for signs of infection.
  • Apply moisturiser around the area that is leaking.
  • Lift your limb when you can – for example, raise an arm to the level of the shoulder or a leg to the level of the hip.
  • Regularly apply a clean, dry dressing to the area. But do not tape it to the skin. Gently hold it in place with a soft bandage. Only put on a lymphoedema bandage if your lymphoedema specialist has shown you how to do it.

Having lymphorroea can be upsetting. You may find it difficult to manage. But specialist support can help you. If lymphorrhoea is affecting how you feel about your body, we have more information about body image that may help.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our lymphoedema information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    Skin care for people with lymphoedema. British Lymphology Society 2022.

    O’Donnell TF et al. Systematic review of guidelines for lymphedema and the need for contemporary intersocietal guidelines for the management of lymphedema. Journal of Vascular Surgery: Venous and Lymphatic Disorders 2020.

    The Lymphoedema Support Network

    The British Lymphology Society

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
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We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

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Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 March 2023
Next review: 01 March 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.