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Septic arthritis

Septic arthritis is a serious type of joint infection. It should be treated as soon as possible. You can make a full recovery with treatment but if left untreated it can be more serious.

Urgent advice: Ask for an urgent GP appointment or call 111 if

  • you have severe joint pain, usually in just 1 joint, that started suddenly
  • you have swelling around a joint
  • the skin around a joint has changed colour
  • you feel generally unwell and have a high temperature or feel hot and shivery

Symptoms of septic arthritis usually develop quickly over a few days and need to be checked.

Treatment for septic arthritis

If doctors think you have symptoms of septic arthritis:

  • you'll usually be treated in hospital with antibiotics given straight into a vein
  • fluid may be drained from the affected joint
  • you'll probably have to take antibiotic tablets for several weeks after you leave hospital

The average stay in hospital if you have septic arthritis is about 2 weeks. Most people start feeling better quickly once they are given antibiotics.

Important

When you leave hospital you may be given antibiotic tablets to take for several weeks. It is important to keep taking the tablets for as long as you are told to, even if you feel better. Stopping treatment too soon could lead to the infection coming back.

Follow-up treatment

You may be referred to a physiotherapist to help you get the joint moving again. This should help prevent any long-term stiffness in the joint.

If the infection was in an artificial joint, such as in a knee or hip replacement, the joint may need to be removed. It may be possible to replace it with a new artificial joint once the infection has been treated.

Causes of septic arthritis

You can get septic arthritis if germs get into a joint. This can happen:

  • if you have an injury or accident to a joint, such as a dog bite or a bad cut
  • if germs from somewhere else in the body spread into the blood and then into a joint
  • as a complication of joint surgery

Who is at risk of septic arthritis

Anyone can get septic arthritis but some people are more at risk. This includes people:

  • with rheumatoid arthritis
  • with a weakened immune system
  • who have recently had joint surgery
  • who have an artificial joint, such as a knee or hip replacement
  • who inject drugs like heroin
  • with gonorrhoea, which is a sexually transmitted infection

Page last reviewed: 7 January 2020
Next review due: 7 January 2023