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Reactive Arthritis

Last Updated February 2021 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Beth Oller, MD

What is reactive arthritis?

Reactive arthritis is a rare condition. It occurs when your immune system reacts to an infection somewhere else in your body. It can make your joints swell and hurt, similar to arthritis. It can also affect your eyes and genitals. Reactive arthritis may be called Reiter’s syndrome or Fiessinger-Leroy’s disease.

Symptoms of reactive arthritis

The main symptoms of reactive arthritis are swelling, pain, redness, and warmth in one or more joints. It usually happens in your knees, ankles, or feet. The condition also can affect your eyes or genitals. Your eyes may burn or be red and painful. Your vision may be blurry. You may feel pain or burning when you urinate. You also may have discharge from your penis or vagina.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Pain in your heel or Achilles tendon
  • Skin sores
  • Ulcers in your mouth, tongue, or genitals

What causes reactive arthritis?

The exact cause of reactive arthritis is unknown. It begins after you have an infection that activates your immune system. Reactive arthritis has been linked to bacterial infections associated with chlamydia, salmonella, shigella, Yersinia, and campylobacter. These bacteria cause certain sexually transmitted infections and gastrointestinal infections. People who have reactive arthritis often have a specific genetic marker called HLA-B27.

Reactive arthritis is more common in people between 20 and 40 years of age. Men are more prone to develop reactive arthritis related to sexually transmitted bacteria. Women are more likely to get it from a gastrointestinal infection. The condition is rare in children but can occur in teenagers.

How is reactive arthritis diagnosed?

There isn’t a specific test to check for reactive arthritis. Your doctor will do an exam and review your symptoms. They will ask about any recent infections.

Your doctor may order X-rays to look at your joints. Lab tests, such as a urinalysis, can rule out other possible conditions. Your doctor may test you for an STI. Other tests are possible as well.

Can reactive arthritis be prevented or avoided?

You can’t always avoid reactive arthritis. However, there are things you can do to lower your risk. For example, practice safe sex. Get tested and treated for STIs.

You also can reduce your chance of food poisoning by:

  • Cooking meat fully
  • Washing utensils and surfaces well
  • Keeping food cold so it doesn’t spoil

Reactive arthritis treatment

Treatment for reactive arthritis is meant to relieve symptoms. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can reduce swelling and pain. If joint swelling continues, your doctor may recommend corticosteroid injections (shots).

If you have an infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. You and your sexual partner should get tested for STIs. If you are diagnosed with an STI, you may need to take medicine or undergo other treatment.

Living with reactive arthritis

Reactive arthritis often goes away along with your infection. This could take a few weeks or several months. In some cases, symptoms may return. Talk to your doctor about what you can do to manage ongoing symptoms.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if my symptoms are caused by reactive arthritis or another condition?
  • What has caused my condition?
  • Could I have an STI?
  • What is the best treatment for me?
  • What are the side effects of antibiotics?
  • Is there anything I can do at home to relieve my symptoms?
  • What exercises can I do to relieve joint pain?
  • What do I do if my symptoms come back?
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