Septic arthritis

Septic arthritis is inflammation of a joint caused by a bacterial infection. Any joint can be affected - it's most common in knees and hips. More than one joint can be affected. Most people recover after treatment. Without treatment, it may cause permanent joint damage and can become life threatening.

Symptoms of septic arthritis

The symptoms of septic arthritis include:

  • severe pain, swelling, redness and heat in affected joints - these symptoms tend to develop quickly over a few hours or days
  • may also have difficulty moving the affected joint - some people have a high temperature (fever)
  • young children with septic arthritis will generally be irritable and may cry whenever the infected joint is moved, for example, during nappy changing - they may also try to avoid using or putting any weight on affected joints

If you suspect septic arthritis, see your GP, contact GP out of hours service or visit your local emergency department as soon as possible.

Treating septic arthritis

If you are diagnosed with septic arthritis, it is usually treated with antibiotics. You'll normally need to stay in hospital for at least two weeks to have antibiotics given to you directly into a vein (intravenously).

After you finish the course of intravenous antibiotics, you'll probably need to take antibiotic tablets at home. Your health professional will discuss your treatment with you before you leave hospital.

You should completely recover after antibiotic treatment. Some people still experience persistent limited movement in the affected joint.

Causes of septic arthritis

The condition is most commonly caused by either:

These bacteria may enter a wound and travel through your bloodstream to the affected joint, or may infect your joint directly after an injury or during surgery.

The following things can increase your risk of septic arthritis:

  • having joint surgery, such as a knee replacement or hip replacement
  • having a bacterial infection somewhere else in your body
  • having a long-term condition such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis
  • using injected drugs
  • taking medication that suppresses your immune system
  • recently injuring a joint

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published January 2018

This page is due for review March 2020

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