What Causes Joint Swelling?

Gout is a common cause of toe joint swelling.
Arthritis is a common cause of joint swelling.
Article Details
  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 August 2014
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Joint swelling occurs when fluid builds up in the area around a joint. There are many different things that cause this, many of which also lead to stiffness, discomfort, and outright pain. One of the most common causes of joint swelling is arthritis. In addition to swelling, you may experience joint pain, stiffness, red skin around the affected joints, and difficulty moving the joint if you have arthritis. The condition occurs when cartilage around a joint breaks down and allows the bones to rub together.

Gout is another condition that may cause swelling. With this condition, symptoms start suddenly and often occur in the middle of the night; the affected person typically has no warning that an attack of gout is about to begin. Besides swollen joints, symptoms of gout include redness around the affected joints and pain. The intense pain typically lasts for as little as five days or as many as 10 days, if left untreated. Gout most often affects the joint in the big toe, but it can also wreak havoc on joints in the feet, ankles, and knees; hand and wrist joints may be affected as well.

Sometimes infections, which may be viral, bacterial, or fungal in nature, cause joint swelling. For example, a rare fungal infection called blastomycosis can cause swelling as well as general discomfort, coughing, shortness of breath, fever, fatigue, joint stiffness, skin lesions and rashes, chest pain and a range of other symptoms. This infection can be fatal if left untreated.


Septic arthritis causes joint swelling but is caused by bacteria. Its other symptoms include intense joint pain, redness, low-grade fever, and an inability to move the part of the body that houses the affected joint. With antibiotic treatment, chances of recovery from this condition are good. If the condition is allowed to worsen without treatment, however, the affected joint may be permanently damaged.

Rheumatoid arthritis is another common cause of swollen joints. This serious autoimmune condition is marked by an immune system that attacks healthy body tissues. It typically strikes people who are between 25 and 55 and is mostly found in women. No one is sure of the exact cause of this form of arthritis, but genes and infections have both been implicated. Hormones may play a role as well.

Besides joint swelling, a person with this condition may experience appetite loss, low-grade fever, limited movement, redness and inflammation of the skin, swollen glands and numbness. A person with rheumatoid arthritis may also have eyes that itch, burn or seep discharge. Symptoms also include anemia and severely damaged or even destroyed joints. A person with this disease will need treatment for his entire life, and the average life span of a person with this disease may be shortened by several years.

Sometimes, an injury, such as a broken bone, may cause joint swelling. If the swelling is caused by anything other than a minor injury, you should seek medical attention right away. If you don't have an obvious injury or your injury is mild, call your doctor if the swelling lasts for longer than a week or the affected joint is red and hot. Always call your doctor if your joint swelling is accompanied by fever or chills. Likewise, seek immediate medical attention if your joint is punctured.


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