Infectious arthritis is characterized predominantly by pain and swelling in the joints due to inflammation. Infectious arthritis is a form of joint inflammation caused by a “germ”, typically bacterium, a virus or a fungus. Frequently infectious arthritis affects only a single joint, but may involve multiple joints. The most commonly affected joints include the knees, hips and shoulders, but smaller joints (fingers and ankles) may also be involved.
Infection of the joints usually occurs after a previous infection elsewhere in the body. The germ may have entered your body through the skin, nose, throat or ears, or through a wound.
Most of the time infectious arthritis can be cured if it is treated early. Without treatment however, the affected joints can become very damaged and the infection can spread to other joints or parts of the body.
Males and females are affected equally and it can affect individuals at any age. Risk factors for infectious arthritis include those with weakened immune systems or those with a prior joint replacement. Medical issues include:
- sickle-cell anaemia
- severe kidney disease
- immune deficiency
- some forms of cancer
- intravenous drug abuse
People who work in jobs where exposure to animals, plants, marine life and soil is common also have a higher chance of contracting infectious arthritis.
The symptoms of infectious arthritis varies greatly depending on the type of germ and joint affected.
- If it is caused by a bacterium, the pain and swelling is usually only in one spot. It tends to come on suddenly. You may also have a fever and chills.
- If it is caused by a virus, you may have pain all over. Usually there is no fever.
- If it is caused by a fungus, the pain and swelling comes on very slowly, over weeks or months. The pain and swelling can be in one spot or all over the body. There may be a mild fever.
Infectious arthritis is not transmittable from one person to the other, but some germs (such as those causing gonorrhoea and measles) can be spread by person-to-person contact. However, while these diseases can be passed on, this does not necessarily lead to the development of infectious arthritis.
If one is concerned for infectious arthritis, immediate consultation with a physician is important to avoid joint damage. A thorough medical history and physical exam in addition to X-rays and other laboratory testing will likely be performed. Removal of joint fluid for analysis is frequently required for diagnosis.
Infectious arthritis is usually not a long-term illness. Most of the time it can be cured if it is treated promptly and properly.
Treatment is often initiated prior to the establishment of a diagnosis given the risk for joint damage if treatment is delayed. After a diagnosis is confirmed and the type of “germ” has been identified the treatment may be narrowed down and more specific.
Anti-inflammatory medications are often used to treat pain and swelling of the affected joint. Antibiotics or antifungal medications will be prescribed depending on the “germ” responsible. Often times the treatment may last for several weeks to months to ensure the infection has been completely eradicated.
In certain situations surgery is necessary to completely clean out the joint to ensure the infection is eliminated.