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6-minute read

Key facts

  • Osteomyelitis is type of bone infection.
  • Symptoms include fever, bone pain, stiffness and swelling.
  • Staphylococcus bacteria is the most common cause of osteomyelitis.
  • Your doctor will diagnose osteomyelitis by doing a physical examination, by referring you for blood tests and sometimes tissue or bone biopsy.
  • Early treatment with antibiotics and/or surgery can help reduce the chance of permanent bone damage.

What is osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone. Any bone can be affected, but it is most common in arm and leg bones in children, and in the back and pelvis bones in adults. Early treatment reduces the chance of permanent bone damage.

If untreated, osteomyelitis can lead to blood poisoning (sepsis) and/or an abscess in the bone.

What are the symptoms of osteomyelitis?

If you have osteomyelitis, you may experience:

  • fever
  • pain and stiffness in the bone
  • swelling, redness and warmth in the affected area
  • fatigue
  • feeling generally unwell

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis is commonly caused by staphylococcus aureus, a type of bacteria found on the skin, also known as 'staph'. In many cases, the bone may become infected after an injury, such as a bone fracture, or surgery. These events may allow bacteria from the skin to enter the body and infect the bones.

Osteomyelitis can also happen when there is an infection in another part of the body, such as a urinary tract infection or pneumonia, that spreads through the blood to the bone.

If osteomyelitis is caused by an infection, injury or another condition, it is called acute osteomyelitis. If the infection continues, or keeps coming back, it is called chronic osteomyelitis.

Osteomyelitis is more common in people who have immune system problems or have a chronic disease such as diabetes, HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, sickle cell anaemia or kidney disease that needs dialysis.

When should I see my doctor?

Yous should see your doctor if you have pain or fever that persists for longer than a few days without a clear cause.

How is osteomyelitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, examine you and refer you for tests. Common tests used to help diagnose osteomyelitis include blood tests and wound swabs.

Although blood tests cannot be used to diagnose osteomyelitis, it may be used to detect signs of infection. A type of blood test known as a blood culture may also be used to identify the type of bacteria causing the infection.

Sometimes your doctor will take a tissue or bone biopsy, where a small piece of bone is removed for testing. They may do imaging tests such as x-rays, MRI, CT scan, bone scan or ultrasound.

How is osteomyelitis treated?

Acute osteomyelitis is usually treated with antibiotics for at least 3 to 6 weeks. At first, you will need antibiotics intravenously (IV - through a vein), and later as oral tablets, your symptoms improve.

If your condition is severe, and for chronic osteomyelitis, you may need surgery to remove damaged bone or tissue, or infected plates or screws. You may also need surgery if antibiotic treatment does not work.

Care at home

If your health improves after you have intravenous antibiotics in hospital, you may be able to go home. Your doctor may send you home with antibiotics in tablet form that you can swallow, or with planned outpatient intravenous therapy (known as 'hospital in the home'). It is very important that you complete the course of antibiotics as your doctor prescribes, to reduce your chance of complications.

If you have any further signs or symptoms of osteomyelitis, have diarrhoea or a fever above 38.5 °C, you should see your doctor.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Resources and support

If you think you have osteomyelitis you should see your doctor promptly.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023

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