What is a Bone Infection?

N. Madison
N. Madison

A bone infection, also called osteomyelitis, is an infection that involves a person’s bone tissue. This type of infection can develop suddenly and last for only a short period of time or can be chronic and last for a long-term period. Infections of the bone tissue may be caused by bacteria or by a fungus. While anyone can develop an infection in the bone, individuals who have depressed immune systems or serious illnesses, such as diabetes, may be more likely to develop one.

A diagram of the anatomy of a bone.
A diagram of the anatomy of a bone.

Besides those with compromised immune systems or serious illnesses, people in certain age groups tend to be more vulnerable to bone infections than others. Very young children, for example, are more likely to develop infections in the bones, as are older individuals. People of any age can develop them, however.

In some cases, a bone infection is caused by bacteria and can be treated with antibiotics.
In some cases, a bone infection is caused by bacteria and can be treated with antibiotics.

A person develops a bone infection when his bone tissue is invaded by bacteria or fungi. This may happen in one of two ways. Sometimes the infections develop because bacteria or fungi make their way to the bone tissue through the bloodstream. In other cases, a bone may be exposed to the environment outside of the body and may be vulnerable to such invasions because of this exposure. For example, a bone may be exposed to bacteria after a break or severe wound.

Symptoms of osteomyelitis may include fever and chills.
Symptoms of osteomyelitis may include fever and chills.

Sometimes infections start when bacteria or fungi move through the bloodstream and into the bone tissue. When this happens to children, it is most likely to affect the ends of the limb bones. Adults are more likely to have their spines affected. In some cases, invaders get into the bones after a fracture or bone surgery. Sometimes they even get into the bone after a metal device or artificial joint has been used to repair the bone, such as in a hip repair surgery.

Osteomyelitis may cause swelling of the ankles and feet.
Osteomyelitis may cause swelling of the ankles and feet.

A bone infection may even develop after a person develops a soft-tissue infection. For example, an infected bone may be the result of the spread of infection from a foot ulcer. A gum infection could even spread to infect a person’s skull.

The elderly are susceptible to developing osteomyelitis.
The elderly are susceptible to developing osteomyelitis.

Symptoms of an infection include fever and pain in the bone that has been infected. The tissue over the bone may also swell, and the patient may feel tired. Often, weight loss accompanies these infections, and movement of the affected body part may be painful.

Infection may occur after a fracture or bone surgery.
Infection may occur after a fracture or bone surgery.

Treatment for the infection typically depends on the organism that caused it. For bacterial infections, antibiotics are used and treatment may continue for months at a time. When the source of the infection is fungal, the patient may have to take antifungal drugs for several months. In severe cases, surgical treatment is necessary. Recovery without surgery is most likely when the condition is discovered and treated early; if left untreated, it is possible for a bone infection to become a chronic condition.

A bone infection may occur in the spine.
A bone infection may occur in the spine.
A bone infection may occur in the area where metal screws and plates have been inserted to repair a fracture.
A bone infection may occur in the area where metal screws and plates have been inserted to repair a fracture.
A bone infection may stem from an unhealed leg ulcer in a person with diabetes.
A bone infection may stem from an unhealed leg ulcer in a person with diabetes.
In some cases, a bone infection may occur following bone surgery.
In some cases, a bone infection may occur following bone surgery.
N. Madison
N. Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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Discussion Comments

Grivusangel

I have a friend who has just found out she has osteomyelitis in her ear. She went on a cruise and her ears started hurting. She went to the doctor, but apparently, the infection was something they couldn't treat on board ship.

She is going to have to see her Ear, Nose and Throat doctor for the two or three times a *week* for the next two months! She is on heavy-duty antibiotics and the doctor has placed a shunt in her ear to aid draining. This is nothing to mess around with. It's a really bad thing to have!

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