What You Need to Know About Septic Arthritis

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Carteron, M.D., FACR

Septic arthritis, also called infectious arthritis, is a joint infection that tends to occur in joints affected by other forms of arthritis. Prompt treatment for skin infections or other body infections can help prevent septic arthritis from developing. Despite its name, septic arthritis is different from other forms of arthritis. It typically affects people with other forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis (OA) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Read on to learn about septic arthritis, including its causes, symptoms, and treatments. This article also discusses the outlook for people with the condition and ways to prevent it.

What are the causes of septic arthritis?

An older woman sitting on a couch and holding her left knee
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Septic arthritis occurs due to an infection. According to researchers Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , septic arthritis is most often the result of a bacterial infection. However, fungi, viruses, and other less common infectious organisms can also contribute to the condition.

Infectious organisms travel through the bloodstream from the site of another infection to the joints. The Arthritis Foundation notes that joints damaged by arthritis are more susceptible to infections.

Learn more about the types of arthritis.

What are the symptoms of septic arthritis?

People with septic arthritis can experience symptoms, including:

  • joint pain, swelling, and discoloration
  • reduced range of joint motion
  • chills
  • fever

Researchers Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source note that when a child has septic arthritis, it typically affects the hip. However, the knee is the most common site in adults, followed by the hip. The ankles, toes, and other joints can also develop septic arthritis.

How do doctors diagnose septic arthritis?

To diagnose septic arthritis, your doctor will perform a physical examination and assess your medical history. They can then order several types of tests, such as:

  • blood tests
  • urine tests
  • tests of the synovial fluid from the affected joint, which may show:
    • an elevated white blood cell count
    • bacterial organisms

In addition, imaging tests may show Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source wide spaces in the joint, bulging soft tissue, or bone changes.

What are the treatments for septic arthritis?

The main treatments for septic arthritis involve draining the joint fluid (aspiration) and antibiotics. Sometimes, a doctor may need to administer antibiotics intravenously at first, and then you will likely continue treatment with oral medication.

Depending on which bacteria are causing the infection, you may need to take antibiotics for at least 2 weeks Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source .

If the infection spreads to a prosthetic joint, you may require surgery to remove the joint and replace it with a new joint containing antibiotics.

Some people may also need to immobilize the joint with braces or splints. Physical therapy can help restore joint function.

What is the outlook for people with septic arthritis?

Septic arthritis is a serious condition that can lead to morbidity in one-third of people Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source . Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are essential for managing the infection and improving outcomes. It’s important to follow your doctor’s treatment plan to reduce the risk of serious complications.

Notify your doctor right away if you experience sudden symptoms such as joint pain and fever.

What are some potential complications of septic arthritis?

Septic arthritis can cause Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source a variety of complications, including:

What are the risk factors for septic arthritis?

Certain factors may increase the risk of developing septic arthritis, such as:

  • being more than 80 years old
  • having certain other health conditions, such as diabetes, OA, or RA
  • having undergone recent procedures, such as joint surgery or hip or knee prosthesis surgery
  • having skin infections
  • being on immunosuppressive medications

Can you prevent septic arthritis?

Keeping yourself safe from other infections or managing existing infections is crucial to preventing septic arthritis.

A 2017 report Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlined an outbreak of septic arthritis in a private practice. The report indicated that 41 people developed septic arthritis after they had received joint injections.

The report concluded that several factors contributed to the outbreak:

  • inadequate hand hygiene
  • cross-contamination due to reusing single-use containers
  • handling of pharmacy bulk packaged products in an environment outside of the required pharmacy conditions
  • preparing syringes up to 4 days in advance of administering the contents

This report highlights the importance of preventing infectious spread, which in turn helps prevent septic arthritis.

Good hygiene practices and prompt treatment for any infections are beneficial.

Learn more about ways to prevent infections.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are a few other common questions about septic arthritis. Nancy Carteron, MD, FACR, reviewed the answers.

What is the most common cause of septic arthritis?

The most common cause of septic arthritis is a bacterial infection. When bacteria enter the bloodstream through other body sites, they can travel to the joints and cause pain, swelling, and systemic symptoms such as fever.

How serious is septic arthritis?

Septic arthritis is a serious condition. The Arthritis Foundation notes that the infection can quickly damage or destroy the joint. In addition, septic arthritis can lead to severe complications, including bone infection or death.

Can septic arthritis be cured permanently?

If diagnosed and treated promptly, septic arthritis can be cured with antibiotic therapy. However, if you have a prosthetic joint and develop septic arthritis, you may need surgery to remove and replace the joint.

What are the three signs of joint infection?

Joint infections can cause pain, swelling, and warmth. Some people may also experience systemic symptoms, such as fever or chills.

Summary

Septic arthritis is a joint infection, usually caused by bacteria. Although it can be serious and cause long-term complications, prompt treatment can clear up the infection and prevent future issues.

Talk with your doctor about ways to keep yourself safe from septic arthritis.

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Medical Reviewer: Nancy Carteron, M.D., FACR
Last Review Date: 2022 Dec 19
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