You wake up, look in the mirror, and get quite a shock: all of a sudden, your face is swollen. Before you panic, though, know that often, facial swelling is not serious. The first thing you should do (assuming you don’t have swelling in your lips or mouth or difficulty breathing—that’s when you call 911 first) is try to pinpoint the problem: Did you try a new, extra-salty food you might be having a reaction to? Are your allergies flaring up?
If those factors don’t apply, think about other symptoms you might be having. Does your face hurt, and if so, where? Is there redness? “Facial swelling is frequently your body triggering an immune response to help fight an allergy or an infection,” says Linda N. Lee, MD, FACS, assistant professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School and a member of the division of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston. Any and all details that connect to the swelling are going to help you, and possibly your doctor, get to the root of the problem.
When Is Facial Swelling a Medical Emergency?
“If it leads to tongue or airway swelling,” cautions Dr. Lee. “Any swelling in the lips or anywhere in the mouth can progress to difficulty breathing. If facial swelling is associated with swelling of your eyelids, especially with pain and fever, then this could be a sign of an infection which needs urgent attention.” Call 911 if you experience any of these symptoms. Also call if your swelling is sudden or if it makes your face immobile in any way.
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Common Reasons for Facial Swelling
Let’s take a closer look at some more reasons your face might be swelling up—and find out what to do to help yourself look and feel like yourself again, stat.
1. You’re experiencing an allergic reaction
According to the Mayo Clinic, food allergies can cause swelling around or inside your mouth, as well as hives or eczema on your skin. If you have an allergy to a drug you’re taking, you can experience swelling plus additional symptoms like wheezing and a rash. The most common medications people experience allergies to include penicillin, antibiotics, sulfa drugs, anticonvulsants, and aspirin, ibuprofen and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma,and Immunology. Let your doctor know if you think this is the issue, so they can both treat your symptoms ASAP and find you an alternate medication.
2. You changed your shaving routine
“Often patients can have contact dermatitis from shaving creams, sunscreen, lotions, detergents or makeup,” says Dr. Lee. Solving this problem can be as simple as figuring out which new product might be aggravating your system, and going back to the stuff you used previously.
3. You’ve spent too much time outdoors
Basic things that can happen outdoors can lead to facial swelling. “Sun poisoning or extreme sunburns can lead to facial swelling,” explains Dr. Lee. Of course, so can injuries that didn’t seem all that serious at first. If you sustained an injury to your face–like getting smacked with a ball while jumping into a pickup game–it’s logical to expect swelling in the area you got hit.
4. You have an abscessed tooth
A pus-filled pimple on your gum and an extreme toothache, along with swelling in your upper or lower jaw, can indicate an abscessed tooth, according to the Cleveland Clinic. See your dentist right away, because this infection can spread. Treatment can range from draining the abscess to a root canal to having the affected tooth pulled.
5. Fluid is building up under your skin
Angioedema is a skin reaction that’s accompanied by swelling and hives, and is often due to allergy or infection–but it should not be taken lightly. Histamine is released under your skin, which causes fluid to build up. “Angioedema is a more serious cause of facial swelling,” says Dr. Lee. “There are different types of angioedema—food-related, or idiopathic, meaning without an obvious cause. Angioedema can show itself as swelling around the mouth and cheeks, and can lead to swelling of the tongue or airway, and difficulty breathing.” If you experience these severe symptoms, again, call 911 right away.
6. You’re dealing with an underlying illness
Autoimmune disorders like lupus, Sjogren’s Syndrome, and polymyositis can cause facial swelling. An underactive thyroid may cause your face to get puffy. You could also experience facial swelling during cancer treatment, or if you get a blood transfusion. If you have these kinds of reactions either during a medical procedure or afterward, tell your health care provider right away.
7. There’s a problem with your glands
“Salivary glands, such as your submandibular gland or your parotid gland) can become blocked from salivary stones—they’re similar to kidney stones,” Dr. Lee explains. “Salivary stones can block the flow of natural saliva and create facial swelling and pressure. This is often related to dehydration or too much calcium in your system. If you’ve recently run a marathon, changed your diet, or if you find facial swelling correlates with eating acidic or spicy foods, a blocked salivary gland can be the root cause.” See your doctor for a correct diagnosis.
8. You have a sinus infection
“A severe sinus infection can start with facial pressure and lead to external facial swelling of the cheeks or around the eyes,” Dr. Lee says. “If there are nasal symptoms associated with facial pressure, especially with swelling around the eyelids and in the forehead between the eyes, this can be a complication of untreated sinus disease.” Most sinus infections clear up within ten days without antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
9. You have a cyst
“A very common facial swelling that I see a lot are facial cysts, often related to ingrown beard hairs or clogged sweat glands,” Dr. Lee says. “These can appear as swollen areas of the skin which fluctuate in size, and can grow larger over time. They tend to occur in areas of the face with beard or mustache hair, or higher density of sweat glands. Facial cysts can become infected or inflamed, causing redness and pain in the skin around the swelling.” A doctor can diagnose and remove a facial cyst.
10. You have an eyelid infection
A stye can develop on your eyelid when an oil gland gets inflamed due to bacteria, and can cause your entire eyelid to swell. Styes usually resolve in a matter of days, and you can use warm compresses on them to speed up healing.
Lisa is an internationally established health writer whose credits include Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Men’s Health, Oprah Daily, Woman’s Day, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Glamour, The Washington Post, WebMD, Medscape, The Los Angeles Times, Parade, Health, Self, Family Circle and Seventeen. She is the author of eight best-selling books, including The Essentials of Theater.
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