What Is Osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis is the medical term for inflammation in a bone. It's usually caused by a bacterial infection. It often affects the long bones of the arms and legs, but can happen in any bone.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Osteomyelitis?

Kids with osteomyelitis often feel pain in the infected bone. They also might:

  • have a fever and chills
  • feel tired or nauseated
  • generally not feel well
  • have sore, red, and swollen skin above the infected bone

Very young children might stop using the infected limb and protect it from being touched. They may also be fussy or eat less.

Teens tend to get osteomyelitis after an accident or injury. The injured area may begin to hurt again after seeming to get better.

What Causes Osteomyelitis?

Bacteria can infect bones in a few ways. For instance:

  • Bacteria can travel into the bone through the bloodstream from other infected areas in the body. This is called hematogenous (heh-meh-TAH-gen-us) osteomyelitis. It's the most common way that kids get bone infections.
  • A direct infection can happen when bacteria enter a wound and travel to the bone (like after an injury or surgery). Open fractures — breaks in the bone with the skin also open — are the injuries that most often develop osteomyelitis.
  • Sometimes the bacteria can spread from a nearby infection. For example, an untreated infection in skin or a joint can spread to the bone.

Who Gets Osteomyelitis?

Osteomyelitis is most common in young kids under age 5. But it can happen at any age. Boys get it almost twice as often as girls do.

Is Osteomyelitis Contagious?

No, bones infections aren't contagious. But the germs that cause osteomyelitis can sometimes pass from one person to another.

How Is Osteomyelitis Diagnosed?

If your child has a fever and bone pain, visit the doctor right away. Osteomyelitis can get worse within hours or days and become much harder to treat.

The doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions about recent injuries to the painful area. Blood tests can check for an increased white blood cell count (a sign of infection) and other signs of possible inflammation or infection. An X-ray may be ordered although X-rays don't always show signs of infection in a bone in the early stages.

The doctor might suggest a bone scan to get a more detailed look at the bone. The doctor might also recommend an MRI, which gives much more detailed images than X-rays. MRIs not only can diagnose osteomyelitis, but can help establish how long the bone has been infected.

The doctor may do a needle aspiration to get a sample from the bone. This lets the doctor find out which bacteria caused the infection. It also can help the doctor decide which antibiotic would best treat the infection.

How Is Osteomyelitis Treated?

Treating osteomyelitis depends on:

  • the age and general health of the child
  • how severe the infection is
  • whether the infection is acute (recent) or chronic (has been going on for a longer time)

Treatment includes antibiotics for the infection and medicine for pain relief. Most kids with osteomyelitis have a brief stay in the hospital to get IV (given in a vein) antibiotics to fight the infection. They can go home when they feel better, but might need to continue IV or oral antibiotics for several more weeks.

Sometimes surgery is needed to clean out an infected bone. If a cavity or hole developed in the bone and is filled with pus (a collection of bacteria and white blood cells), a doctor will do a debridement. In this procedure, the doctor cleans the wound, removes dead tissue, and drains pus out of the bone so that it can heal.

How Long Does Osteomyelitis Last?

Most children with osteomyelitis feel better within a few days of starting treatment. IV antibiotics often are switched to oral form in 5 to 10 days. Kids usually get antibiotics for at least a month, and sometimes longer depending on symptoms and blood test results.

Can Osteomyelitis Be Prevented?

One way to prevent osteomyelitis is to keep skin clean. All cuts and wounds — especially deep wounds — should be cleaned well. Wash a wound with soap and water, holding it under running water for at least 5 minutes to flush it out.

To keep the wound clean afterward, cover it with sterile gauze or a clean cloth. You can apply an over-the-counter antibiotic cream, but the most important thing is to keep the area clean. Wounds should begin healing within 24 hours and completely heal within a week.

A wound that takes longer to heal or causes extreme pain should be checked by a doctor.

And, as with many infections, parents and kids should wash their hands well and often to stop the spread of germs. Kids also should have their vaccinations kept up to date.

Back to Articles

Related Articles


Cellulitis is a skin infection that involves areas of tissue just below the skin's surface. It can affect any part of the body, but it's most common on exposed areas, such as the face, arms, or lower legs.

Read More


MRSA is a type of bacteria that the usual antibiotics can't tackle anymore. Simple precautions can help protect your kids from becoming infected.

Read More

Staph Infections

When skin is punctured or broken for any reason, staph bacteria can enter the wound and cause an infection. But good hygiene can prevent many staph infections. Learn more.

Read More

Dealing With Cuts

Find out how to handle minor cuts at home - and when to get medical care for a more serious injury.

Read More


Sometimes a bad cut that gets infected can lead to even worse things, like a bone infection called osteomyelitis. The easiest way to protect yourself is to practice good hygiene.

Read More

Wound Healing and Care

How well a wound heals depends on where it is on the body and what caused it – as well as how well someone cares for the wound at home. Find out what to do in this article for teens.

Read More

Cuts, Scratches, and Scrapes

Most small cuts, scrapes, or abrasions heal on their own. Here are tips for teens on how to treat cuts at home - and when to get medical help.

Read More

First Aid & Safety Center

Boo-boos, bug bites, and broken bones - oh my! Here's your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about how to keep kids safe.

Read More

Why Do I Need to Wash My Hands?

Washing your hands is the best way to stop germs from spreading. Learn all about the best way to wash your hands in this article for kids.

Read More

Hand Washing: Why It's So Important

Did you know that the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands? If you don't wash your hands frequently, you can pick up germs from other sources and then infect yourself.

Read More


Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and underlying tissues that can affect any area of the body. It begins in an area of broken skin, like a cut or scratch.

Read More

Broken Bones

What happens when you break a bone?

Read More


MRSA is a type of bacteria that the usual antibiotics can't tackle anymore. The good news is that there are some simple ways to protect yourself from being infected. Find out how.

Read More

Bones, Muscles, and Joints

Without bones, muscles, and joints, we couldn't stand, walk, run, or even sit. The musculoskeletal system supports our bodies, protects our organs from injury, and enables movement.

Read More

Your Bones

Where would you be without your bones? Learn more about the skeletal system in this article for kids.

Read More

Hand Washing: Why It's So Important

Washing your hands well and often is the best way to keep from getting sick. Here's how to teach this all-important habit to your kids.

Read More

Broken Bones

Many kids will have a broken bone at some point. Here's what to expect.

Read More

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.