Facial swelling is a common symptom with a range of possible causes, including injuries, allergic reactions, and infections. Rarely, facial swelling can be a sign of anaphylaxis, which is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment.
In this article, we look at common causes of swelling of the face and how to treat them. We also cover when to see a doctor and prevention tips.
Possible causes of face swelling
There are many potential causes of facial swelling. These include:
A doctor should assess any swelling in the face.
Actinomycosis is a rare and potentially severe long-term bacterial infection that causes swelling and abscesses in the soft tissues of the body. This condition typically affects a person’s mouth, nose, throat, stomach, and intestines.
Other symptoms of actinomycosis include:
- chest pain
- lumps on the face
- skin sores
- weight loss
Doctors usually prescribe a high dose of the antibiotic penicillin to treat people with actinomycosis. Other antibiotics are available for those with a penicillin allergy. It may take many months of treatment to cure the infection, but it is not contagious.
Allergic conjunctivitis is a type of eye inflammation that occurs when a person experiences an allergic reaction. Triggers of allergic conjunctivitis are called allergens, and they can include:
- mold spores
- pet dander
This condition causes red, itchy, watery, and burning eyes. The skin around the eyes may appear swollen or puffy, especially upon waking.
People can prevent allergic conjunctivitis by avoiding exposure to the allergen. To treat it, they can apply a cold compress to areas of inflammation or take medications, such as antihistamines and anti-inflammatory or steroid eye drops. It is essential not to rub the eyes as this can worsen the symptoms.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction to an allergen. It is a medical emergency and can be fatal. Symptoms tend to appear soon after exposure to the allergen and can quickly get worse. They may include:
- breathing difficulties
- facial swelling
hives, which is a red, itchy, and bumpy rash
- loss of consciousness
- nausea and vomiting
- rapid heart rate
- a sudden drop in blood pressure
It is vital to call 911 if someone displays signs of anaphylaxis. If the person is carrying an epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen) and is unable to administer it themselves, use it on them as the packaging directs.
People who experience anaphylaxis for the first time are at risk of future reactions. They should avoid exposure to the allergen and carry self-injectable epinephrine at all times.
Angioedema is swelling that occurs deep within the skin and results from an allergic reaction to food, medication, or another allergen, such as an insect bite or sting. Along with facial swelling, other symptoms of angioedema may include:
- stomach cramps
Mild angioedema does not always require treatment, although people should continue to avoid the allergen responsible for their symptoms. Those with moderate-to-severe symptoms may need epinephrine, antihistamines, and other medications.
Home remedies to alleviate discomfort include using cold compresses and wearing loose clothing.
Antibiotics can help treat cellulitis.
Injury to the face can cause the bone in the nose to break. The trauma can also cause facial swelling and other symptoms, such as:
- a crooked nose
Broken noses do not always require medical treatment, but a person should still see their doctor if they have experienced a facial injury. Treatment for a broken nose typically consists of pain relievers, splinting, and cold compresses. Some people may require surgery.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin that causes areas of redness and swelling that feel hot to the touch. It also tends to be painful. Without treatment, cellulitis may be life-threatening.
Signs of severe infection include:
- streaks of red from the rash
Doctors usually prescribe oral antibiotics to treat cellulitis, which a person will need to take for a minimum of 5 days. Resting and taking pain-relieving medications can help reduce discomfort.
Cushing’s syndrome is a disorder that occurs when the body makes too much of the hormone cortisol. People with Cushing’s syndrome tend to have a puffy, round face. They may also have skin that bruises easily and excess or thick body hair.
Taking high doses of glucocorticoids is a common cause of Cushing’s syndrome.
Some tumors may also cause the body to make too much cortisol. However, it is rare for the condition to be endogenous, meaning that it results from a problem within the body.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the endogenous form of the condition affects 40 to 70 people out of every million.
Treatment depends on the underlying cause. Options include cortisol-reducing medicines, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
An allergic reaction to specific medications may be a medical emergency. Along with face swelling, drug allergies can cause:
- breathing difficulties
- an itchy, red rash
- rapid heartbeat
- stomach upset
It is important that people inform their doctors, dentists, and pharmacists if they have a known drug allergy and avoid using that medication. A healthcare professional can recommend alternative options.
Common causes of drug allergies can include:
- certain antibiotics, such as penicillin
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen
- chemotherapy drugs
It may also be necessary for people with drug allergies to wear a medical bracelet to alert others in an emergency situation.
Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, is a condition in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones. Thyroid hormones help the body regulate its energy use.
A puffy, swollen face is one of the symptoms of hypothyroidism. Other symptoms include:
People who are experiencing symptoms of an underactive thyroid should see their doctor for a diagnosis. According to the American Thyroid Association, up to 60 percent of people with thyroid disease are unaware that they have this condition.
There is no cure for hypothyroidism, but medications and lifestyle changes can help people manage their symptoms.
Preeclampsia is a condition that occurs in pregnancy and requires urgent medical treatment. The early signs include elevated blood pressure and a high level of protein in the urine. Complications include dangerously high blood pressure, kidney and liver damage, and seizures.
- abdominal pain
- a persistent headache
- sudden weight gain
- swelling of the face and hands
- vision changes
Doctors may recommend early delivery of the baby to resolve preeclampsia. However, this will depend on the stage of the pregnancy and the severity of the condition.
If the condition develops earlier than 37 weeks into the pregnancy, a doctor may instead recommend medical monitoring and medications to lower blood pressure and prevent seizures.
Sinusitis is a common condition that occurs when there is inflammation of the nasal passages and sinuses. This condition can result from allergies or bacterial or viral infections.
Sinusitis can cause swelling and tenderness around the nose and eyes, along with:
- a cough
- a headache
- a runny or stuffy nose
- a sore throat
Home remedies for congestion include staying hydrated, applying warm compresses, and using steam therapy. Over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants may ease congestion while pain relievers can alleviate headache symptoms.
If the symptoms do not improve after a few weeks, this may suggest that a person has a bacterial infection that requires antibiotic treatment.
An abscess or infection in a tooth or the gums can cause swelling around the jawline. Infection also causes pain and tenderness in the affected area.
A dentist will usually prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection, and they may perform a root canal procedure to remove the nerve and damaged pulp from the affected tooth. To reduce discomfort at home, a person can try saltwater mouth rinses and OTC pain relievers.
Superior vena cava syndrome
Superior vena cava (SVC) syndrome is a serious condition that can cause swelling and discoloration in the face and neck.
The superior vena cava is a large vein that carries blood from the head, neck, and upper chest back to the heart. SVC syndrome occurs when this vein becomes obstructed.
The cause of this obstruction is often a tumor pressing against the vein, which can occur in someone with lung or breast cancer. However, there are other possible causes, including tuberculosis and a swollen thyroid.
Symptoms of SVC syndrome can develop gradually over time and may also include:
- shortness of breath
- swallowing difficulties
People with symptoms of SVC syndrome should see a doctor immediately.
Image credit: CDC/Dr. Thomas F. Sellers/Emory University, 2006
Image credit: Afrodriguezg, 2014
Image credit: Ozlem Celik, Mutlu Niyazoglu, Hikmet Soylu and Pinar Kadioglu, 2012
Image credit: Drahreg01, 2007
Superior vena cava syndrome
Image credit: Herbert L. Fred, MD and Hendrik A. van Dijk, 2010
When to see a doctor
See a doctor if facial swelling persists for more than a few days, or if it occurs alongside symptoms such as pain, redness, or itching.
Call 911 or seek immediate medical assistance if a person displays signs of anaphylaxis, or if they come into contact with a known allergen or venomous insect.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be fatal. If the person is carrying an epinephrine autoinjector and is unable to administer it themselves, use it on them as the packaging directs.
Seek immediate medical assistance if a person displays symptoms of SVC syndrome. Be particularly aware of these symptoms if the person has a cancer diagnosis.
Tips for prevention
It is difficult to prevent all cases of face swelling, but doing the following can help:
- avoiding known allergens, including problematic foods and medications
- practicing good oral hygiene by brushing and flossing the teeth regularly to reduce the risk of tooth infection
- eating a healthful diet and reducing stress to boost immunity, which may help prevent some of the infections that cause facial swelling
There are many possible causes of facial swelling, including injuries, infections, and allergic reactions. While some causes are mild and easy to treat, others can be very serious and may require immediate medical attention.
See a doctor for facial swelling that lasts for more than a few days or occurs alongside other symptoms. Seek urgent medical attention for severe symptoms, such as breathing difficulties, low pulse, confusion, or slurred speech. These symptoms may indicate anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be fatal.
If these types of symptoms occur in someone with a known cancer diagnosis, it is also essential to seek medical attention immediately.