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Septic Arthritis

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 5, 2023.

What is septic arthritis?

Septic arthritis is a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection in one or more of your joints. The germ can travel to the joint from another part of your body. A puncture wound near the joint can bring the germ directly into the joint. Septic arthritis usually affects large joints, such as in the knee, hip, shoulder, ankle, and elbow. Septic arthritis needs immediate medical care to prevent permanent joint damage.

What increases my risk for septic arthritis?

Young children and elderly people are the most likely to develop septic arthritis. Any of the following may also increase the risk:

  • Medicines that affect your immune system, including steroid medicines
  • An immune deficiency disorder, such as AIDS
  • IV drug use, or alcoholism
  • Joint disease, injury, or surgery
  • An artificial joint in your knee or hip
  • A medical condition such as diabetes, sickle cell disease, or cancer
  • An open wound that may allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream
  • A bacterial infection, such as strep throat
  • Liver failure, or dialysis for kidney failure

What are the signs and symptoms of septic arthritis?

  • Fever and chills
  • Painful, red, swollen, stiff, or warm joint
  • Trouble moving the infected joint
  • Fatigue or unusual tiredness
  • Cysts (fluid-filled pockets) in the joint
  • Irritability, or crying when the joint is moved (children younger than 3 years)

How is septic arthritis diagnosed?

  • A fluid sample from the joint may be tested for signs of infection. The test may show if the infection is caused by bacteria, a virus, or a fungus.
  • Blood tests are used to measure the amount of inflammation in your body. The tests may also show signs of infection, such as an increased white blood cell count.
  • An x-ray, CT, or MRI may be used to check for joint damage, swelling, or loss of bone. Do not enter the MRI room with any metal. Metal can cause serious damage. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • An ultrasound may show fluid that has moved out of the joint. This may be a sign of septic arthritis.

How is septic arthritis treated?

  • Aspiration is a procedure used to drain fluid from your joint. Your healthcare provider may use a needle to drain the fluid.
  • Antibiotics prevent or fight an infection caused by bacteria.
  • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask your healthcare provider how to take this medicine safely.
  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
  • Arthroscopy is a procedure used to remove infected lining from a joint.
  • Surgery may be needed to drain the fluid if other methods are not successful.

What can I do to manage symptoms of septic arthritis?

  • Rest your painful joint as directed. You may need to keep the joint still when it is painful to prevent more damage.
  • Elevate the joint to reduce swelling and pain. Keep the joint above the level of your heart as often as possible.
  • Apply ice to the joint to reduce swelling and pain. Ice may also help prevent tissue damage. Use a cold compress, or put crushed ice in a bag. Cover it with a towel and apply it to your joint for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, or as directed.
  • Exercise as directed. Exercise may help keep your joints flexible and reduce pain. Ask your healthcare provider how much exercise to get each day and which exercises are best for you.

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • Your heartbeat or breathing is fast, or you have trouble breathing.
  • You have a fever and are confused.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have severe abdominal pain.
  • You are urinating little or not at all.
  • You have sudden, severe joint pain.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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