Reactive arthritis is a group of conditions that may involve the joints, urethra, and eyes. These areas become swollen and inflamed. It is often in response to infections.
Reiter syndrome; Post-infectious arthritis
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
The exact cause of reactive arthritis is unknown. It occurs most often in men younger than age 40. It may follow an infection in the urethra after unprotected sex. It can also follow an intestinal infection (such as food poisoning).
Certain genes may make you more likely to get this condition.
The disorder is rare in young children, but it may occur in teenagers.
Urinary symptoms will appear within days or weeks of an infection. These symptoms may include:
Burning when urinating
Fluid leaking from the urethra (discharge)
Problems starting or continuing a urine stream
Needing to urinate more often than normal
A low fever, along with eye discharge, burning, or redness (conjunctivitis or "pink eye") can develop over the next several weeks.
Joint pain and stiffness also begins during this time period. The arthritis may be mild or severe. Arthritis symptoms may include:
Pain that only one side of the body or more than one joint
Symptoms may include skin sores on the palms and soles of the feet that look like psoriasis. There may also be small, painless ulcers in the mouth, tongue, and penis.
Signs and tests
Your health care provider will diagnose the condition based on your symptoms. A physical exam may show signs of conjunctivitis or skin sores. Symptoms may not all appear at the same time so there may be a delay in getting a diagnosis.
The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and treat the infection that is causing this condition.
Eye problems and skin sores do not need to be treated most of the time. They will go away on their own.
Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics if you have an infection. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and pain relievers may help with joint pain. If a joint is very swollen for a long period of time, your health care provider may inject a corticosteroid medicine into the joint.
Physical therapy can help you relieve pain. It can also help you move better and maintain muscle strength. Rarely, people with a severe case of the disease may need medication to suppress the immune system.
Reactive arthritis may go away in a few weeks, but it can last for a few months. Symptoms may return over a period of years in up to half of the people who have this condition.
Rarely, the condition can lead to abnormal heart rhythm or problems with the aortic heart valve.
Calling your health care provider
See your health care provider if you develop symptoms of this condition.
Avoid infections that can bring on reactive arthritis by practicing safe sex and avoiding things that can cause food poisoning.
Hill JS. Reactive arthritis and undifferentiated spondyloarthritis. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Gabriel SE, et al, eds. Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 76.
Carter JD, Hudson AP. Reactive arthritis: clinical aspects and medical management. Infect Dis Clin North Am. 2009;35(1).
Gordon A. Starkebaum, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.