Septic arthritis is a rare condition involving an infection in the fluid inside joints and surrounding tissues. It leads to pain, tenderness, and swelling and may cause joint damage. Prompt medical treatment is required.

Child with symptoms of septic arthritis in the wristShare on Pinterest
ozgurcankaya/Getty Images

Septic arthritis is more common in children than adults. Identifying early signs and getting medical care is essential. Untreated septic arthritis may lead to joint damage and, in some cases, death.

Treatments, such as antibiotics and draining the infection, may relieve septic arthritis symptoms in children and prevent complications.

The signs and symptoms of septic arthritis may vary. Factors such as the severity of the infection, the joint and tissues affected, and a child’s age can all play a role.

Septic arthritis may affect any joint. It may be most common in the hip and ankle joints in children. The knee, elbow, shoulders, and wrist may also be affected.

Symptoms of septic arthritis may be local, systemic, or both.

Localized symptoms of septic arthritis may include:

  • joint pain that increases with movement
  • tenderness to touch in and around the joint
  • swelling in the joint
  • redness around the joint
  • decreased joint range of movement

Children with septic arthritis may also experience systemic symptoms, including:

  • headache
  • fever
  • irritability
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sore throat

In children under 1 year old, common symptoms may also include:

  • refusal to eat
  • muscle spasms
  • fast heart rate

Septic arthritis in children is considered a medical emergency. Without prompt treatment, septic arthritis may lead to multiple complications, including joint damage and death.

In children, septic arthritis may damage growth plates and cause arms or legs not to grow to their full length in adulthood.

Additional complications of septic arthritis may include:

Early diagnosis and treatment may help prevent complications.

Infectious bacteria, viruses, and fungi may lead to joint infection and inflammation.

Most septic arthritis infections result from bacteria. Staphylococcus aureus is the most common bacterial cause of the condition.

Bacteria may reach joints after entering the body through open skin wounds or surgical procedures. Sometimes, infections in the skin or genital areas may develop into septic arthritis.

Children under 2 years old may be more vulnerable to septic arthritis as well as children who have:

Treatment of septic arthritis may depend on several factors, such as the child’s exact symptoms, the cause of infection, and the severity of the condition.

Treatment and management options may include:

  • Antibiotics: The standard treatment for septic arthritis caused by bacteria is antibiotics. A healthcare professional may first deliver these via intravenous (IV) therapy.
  • Antifungal medications: Fungi may also cause septic arthritis. When this happens, a doctor may prescribe antifungal treatment to manage the infection.
  • Drainage: Sometimes, it’s necessary to drain fluid with pus from the affected joint. This may be done with a needle or through surgery.
  • Cleaning out the joint: Besides removing all pus buildup, cleaning out the infected joint may help manage the infection. Severe infections may need to be drained and cleaned more than once.
  • Pain medication: Medication to manage and relieve pain is often an option for septic arthritis.
  • Splinting: Splinting the affected joint may help manage pain during recovery and prevent joint damage.
  • Physical therapy: Once the infection is cleared, physical therapy can help children recover their strength and mobility in the affected joints.

Prompt treatment by a medical professional is essential in a case of septic arthritis, particularly in children. Home care and natural remedies do not replace medical treatment.

Once your child is back at home, you can take steps to support medical treatment. These may include:

  • ensuring the complete course of antibiotics
  • monitoring your child’s temperature and pain levels
  • watching for symptoms that may indicate the infection is not subsiding, like fever
  • following any plans from physical therapy

Consider discussing the use of any natural remedies with your child’s healthcare team to ensure complementary treatments do not interact with antibiotics or cause complications.

How quickly does septic arthritis progress?

Septic arthritis typically progresses very quickly and requires prompt medical attention. The infection may spread to other body parts, causing more complications and severe pain. Untreated septic arthritis may affect mobility in just a few hours. It could lead to joint damage and, sometimes, death.

What can septic arthritis be mistaken for?

Some conditions may mimic symptoms of septic arthritis, such as osteomyelitis.

It’s possible to have both conditions simultaneously, but while septic arthritis is an infection of the synovial fluid in the joints, osteomyelitis is an infection in the bones.

Similarly, transient synovitis may also cause similar symptoms as septic arthritis, including hip pain in children. Only a healthcare professional can make the correct diagnosis.

Does septic arthritis ever go away?

Untreated septic arthritis rarely goes away and often leads to complications that could put a child or adult’s life in jeopardy. Treatment is available and effective and may prevent complications.

Septic arthritis is an infection in children that affects the fluid inside joints, called synovial fluid, and surrounding tissues.

The condition is not common but a medical emergency. Symptoms may include pain, swelling, and joint immobility.

Septic arthritis may lead to severe complications if not treated promptly. For example, it may damage a child’s growth plates, resulting in impaired growth of arms or legs. Additional complications may include sepsis, bone inflammation, and, in some cases, death.

Antibiotics are the first line of treatment if the condition results from a bacterial infection. Additional treatments often include surgery to drain pus and clean the joint, medications, and splinting for pain management. Physical therapy is also an option to help manage pain and regain mobility.