Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

brand logo

Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(2):507

See related article on reactive arthritis.

What is reactive arthritis?

Reactive arthritis is an uncommon disease that can make your joints hurt and swell. It can also cause rash, fever, weight loss, heart problems, red eyes and blurry vision. Since pain in the joints is one of the most common symptoms, this condition is called reactive arthritis. It's “reactive” because your immune system is reacting to an infection you already had. Reactive arthritis is also called Reiter's (say: rite-erz) syndrome.

Who gets reactive arthritis?

Reactive arthritis is most common in men who are 20 to 40 years old. You might get it a few weeks after having food poisoning. You can also get it after having some kinds of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as gonorrhea, chlamydia or HIV infection. Most people who get reactive arthritis were born with a gene, called HLA-B27, that makes them more likely to get this kind of arthritis.

How can my doctor tell I have reactive arthritis?

You probably have swelling in a knee, ankle or toe. Sometimes your heel or Achilles tendon will hurt. (The Achilles tendon is on the back of your ankle, right above your heel.) You may feel pain or burning when you urinate. You could have a discharge from your penis or vagina. You also might get pinkeye (redness and burning in the white part of your eye). You may have eye pain or blurred vision.

After talking to you and checking you, your doctor may do some tests to see if you have reactive arthritis. No one test can tell that you have the disease. Your doctor will put all the information together to decide if you have it. You may also need to be tested for STDs, since some people can have an STD and not know it.

How is reactive arthritis treated?

Your doctor may give you a strong medicine for the pain and swelling. Also, you need antibiotics if you have an STD. Some STDs don't cause any symptoms. It's important that you and your sex partner get tested and treated to keep the STD from coming back.

The good news is that in most people, reactive arthritis goes away in three to four months. In a few people, the joint pains come back again and again. These people might need a different medicine.

What can I do to get better?

  • Take your medicines.

  • Have your partner(s) tested if you have an STD.

  • Practice safe sex.

  • Make sure you don't get food poisoning (cook meat completely, and keep food cold so it doesn't spoil).

  • Do light exercises (ask your doctor what you can safely do).

Continue Reading

More in AFP

Copyright © 1999 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP.  See permissions for copyright questions and/or permission requests.