Infectious Arthritis


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Septic arthritis of the ankle as seen in a 3 month old.

Source: By Tetsuo Hagino, Masanori Wako, Satoshi Ochiai –, CC BY 2.5,

OpenStax Microbiology

Also called septic arthritisinfectious arthritis can be either an acute or a chronic condition. Infectious arthritis is characterized by inflammation of joint tissues and is most often caused by bacterial pathogens. Most cases of acute infectious arthritis are secondary to bacteremia, with a rapid onset of moderate to severe joint pain and swelling that limits the motion of the affected joint. In adults and young children, the infective pathogen is most often introduced directly through injury, such as a wound or a surgical site, and brought to the joint through the circulatory system. Acute infections may also occur after joint replacement surgery. Acute infectious arthritis often occurs in patients with an immune system impaired by other viral and bacterial infections. S. aureus is the most common cause of acute septic arthritis in the general population of adults and young children. Neisseria gonorrhoeae is an important cause of acute infectious arthritis in sexually active individuals.

Chronic infectious arthritis is responsible for 5% of all infectious arthritis cases and is more likely to occur in patients with other illnesses or conditions. Patients at risk include those who have an HIV infection, a bacterial or fungal infection, prosthetic joints, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or who are undergoing immunosuppressive chemotherapy. Onset is often in a single joint; there may be little or no pain, aching pain that may be mild, gradual swelling, mild warmth, and minimal or no redness of the joint area.

Diagnosis of infectious arthritis requires the aspiration of a small quantity of synovial fluid from the afflicted joint. Direct microscopic evaluation, culture, antimicrobial susceptibility testing, and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analyses of the synovial fluid are used to identify the potential pathogen. Typical treatment includes administration of appropriate antimicrobial drugs based on antimicrobial susceptibility testing. For nondrug-resistant bacterial strains, β-lactams such as oxacillin and cefazolin are often prescribed for staphylococcal infections. Third-generation cephalosporins (e.g., ceftriaxone) are used for increasingly prevalent β-lactam-resistant Neisseria infections. Infections by Mycobacterium spp. or fungi are treated with appropriate long-term antimicrobial therapy. Even with treatment, the prognosis is often poor for those infected. About 40% of patients with nongonnococcal infectious arthritis will suffer permanent joint damage and mortality rates range from 5% to 20%. Mortality rates are higher among the elderly.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: