Arthritis, Infectious

National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc.

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Disorder Subdivisions

  • None

General Discussion

Infectious arthritis is an inflammation of one or more joints that occurs as a result of infection by bacteria, viruses or, less frequently, fungi or parasites. The symptoms of Infectious arthritis depend upon which agent has caused the infection but symptoms often include fever, chills, general weakness, and headaches, followed by inflammation and painful swelling of one or more joints of the body.

Most often, the infection begins at some other location in the body and travels via the bloodstream to the joint. Less commonly, the infection starts in the joint in the course of a surgical procedure, injection or other action.


The symptoms of infectious arthritis depend upon which agent has caused the infection. The symptoms usually include fever (which may be quite high), chills, general weakness and headaches, followed by inflammation of one or more joints. The affected joint or joints often become very painful, swollen, slightly red and stiff within a few hours or days. Rapid onset of symptoms may indicate that a bacterium is the cause. In a few people, however, the infection develops slowly, over a period of months or even years. This slower developing infection is more often the result of a viral or fungal infection than a bacterial one.

Infectious arthritis that affects one joint is often, but not always, bacterial in origin. Occasionally, multiple joints may be involved. Bacterial infections appear to most often affect the larger joints: knees, ankles, shoulders, hips, elbows or wrists. The infection occurs less commonly in other, smaller joints as well. For people who already have some form of arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis, the infection may seem like a flare-up of their existing condition.

Symptoms of infectious arthritis caused by a virus vary with the virus involved. Usually, viral arthritic infections develop more gradually and are more widespread than are bacterial infections, affecting several joints. However, some viral infections may develop quickly and affect only a few joints.

In Lyme disease (one form of infectious arthritis), joint inflammation usually occurs several weeks after onset of other symptoms. (For more information on Lyme Disease, choose "Lyme" as your search term in the Rare Disease Database.)


Any disease-causing microbe may infect a joint. Bacteria are most often responsible, typically producing an acute arthritic attack. In young children the most common bacteria are staphylococci, haemophilus influenzae, and gram- negative bacilli. Older children and adults are most commonly infected with gonococci, staphylococci, streptococci or pneumococci. Acute infectious arthritis at any age may be associated with rubella, mumps or hepatitis B infections. Fungi and fungi-like bacteria such as mycobacterium tuberculosis, etc may cause chronic infectious arthritis. People with rheumatoid arthritis and chronically inflamed joints are particularly susceptible to infectious arthritis.

Affected Populations

Infectious arthritis can affect people of all ages and both sexes. About half of all cases involve adults over the age of 60. The incidence is reported as 2-10 cases per 100,000 of general population. For patients with immunologic disorders, the incidence increases to about 30-70 cases per 100,000 people. In gonococcal arthritis, the disorder is found in three times as many women as men.


A thorough history and physical examination are essential for diagnosis. Blood tests as well as tests of the fluid commonly found in the joints are essential for identification of the infecting agent and to confirm diagnosis. Once the infecting agent is known, an appropriate course of treatment may be designed.

Standard Therapies


Early treatment is required in order to stop the spread of the infection and to avoid destruction of the joint. Successful treatment depends on early and appropriate use of antibiotics. However, examination and culture of the joint fluid should be started before therapy.

The choice of antibiotic depends on the bacterial agent involved. If no organism is present and a gonococcal infection is suspected, penicillin-G is commonly used for treatment. Most clinicians prefer not to inject an antibiotic directly into a joint in order to avoid synovitis. Treatment usually is continued for at least two weeks after all symptoms and signs of inflammation have disappeared.

Fluid from the joint may be cultured to confirm that the infection is gone. If a decrease of symptoms and sterilization of the joint fluid are not apparent after 48 hours of treatment, the choice and dose of the antibiotic may need to be adjusted. Surgical drainage may be indicated when needle aspiration of the joint is difficult, as in hip infections, or if the infection is not controlled after 48 hours. Splinting, in order to rest and to protect the joint, may be useful during the acute stage. Physical therapy is often useful in building up muscle strength preventing stiffness or restoring mobility.

For viral infections, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories may be used to moderate pain and symptoms.

Antibiotic treatment for mycobacterial or fungal arthritis is usually the same as for other serious infections by these agents.

Investigational Therapies

Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.

For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:

Tollfree: (800) 411-1222

TTY: (866) 411-1010


For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, in the main, contact:



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Supporting Organizations

Arthritis Foundation

1330 West Peachtree Street, Suite 100
Atlanta, GA 30309
Tel: (404)872-7100
Tel: (800)283-7800
Website: //

Arthritis Society

393 University Avenue
Suite 1700
Ontario, M5G IE6
Tel: 4169797228
Fax: 4169798366
Tel: 8003211433
Website: //

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

1600 Clifton Road NE
Atlanta, GA 30333
Tel: (404)639-3534
Tel: (800)232-4636
Website: //

Genetic and Rare Diseases (GARD) Information Center

PO Box 8126
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8126
Tel: (301)251-4925
Fax: (301)251-4911
Tel: (888)205-2311
Website: //

NIH/National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

Information Clearinghouse
One AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
Tel: (301)495-4484
Fax: (301)718-6366
Tel: (877)226-4267
Website: //

For a Complete Report

This is an abstract of a report from the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc.® (NORD). Cigna members can access the complete report by logging into For non-Cigna members, a copy of the complete report can be obtained for a small fee by visiting the NORD website. The complete report contains additional information including symptoms, causes, affected population, related disorders, standard and investigational treatments (if available), and references from medical literature. For a full-text version of this topic, see