Cases of gout are on the rise – with nearly 105,000 UK patients hospitalised with the condition in the past year, according to new figures from the Health & Social Care Information Centre. That's a worrying increase of 61 per cent in just four years.
Gout is the most common type of inflammatory arthritis, and risk increases with age. Women rarely develop the condition before the menopause, but are increasingly doing so later in life.
Find out more about arthritis with our guide
What are the symptoms of gout?
Gout attacks come on without warning, usually at night. The most common symptom is a sudden – and very severe – pain in one or more joints, typically the big toe. This may be accompanied by swelling and redness, as well as itchy, peeling skin.
These often debilitating symptoms tend to develop over a few hours and usually last somewhere between three and 10 days. However, 62 per cent of people will suffer a repeat attack within a year.
Find out more about possible causes of joint pain
What causes gout?
Gout is caused by a build-up of a waste product called uric acid in the blood.
Ordinarily, uric acid is removed through the kidneys, but if you produce too much or excrete too little when you urinate, it can build up into a substance called sodium urate, which forms crystals in the joints or surrounding tissue. This is what leads to that painful inflammation.
Certain medical conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney disease, can increase risk of suffering from gout because the body is less able to flush out uric acid.
Some medications – such as those used to treat high blood pressure – may also heighten your risk because they can increase levels of uric acid in the blood. So if you have any concerns about the medication you're taking, do speak to your GP.
There's also a hereditary link: around one in five people with gout have a close family member with the condition.
Learn more about inflammation and how it affects your health
How is gout treated?
Self-help techniques include resting and raising the affected limb, and keeping the joint cool with an ice pack for around 20 minutes at a time.
Your GP may prescribe painkillers – usually non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which work by reducing pain and inflammation.
However, these aren't suitable for people who have reduced kidney function or are using certain medications, in which case an alternative may be offered.
How can I reduce my risk of gout?
Being overweight can boost your uric acid levels, so that's yet another good reason to slim down to a healthy weight – slowly and sensibly, of course.
Certain foods are particularly high in purines, the natural substances that are metabolised into uric acid. So it may be sensible to limit your consumption of these foods, which include red meat, shellfish and oily fish.
That said, oily fish in particular offers numerous other health benefits, thanks to its high omega-3 fatty acid content, so it's still wise to aim to eat one portion a week, or seek advice from your doctor before cutting down further.
How to find other sources of omega 3
It's also a good idea to up your intake of vitamin C, as this can encourage the kidneys to excrete more uric acid.
Foods rich in vitamin C include oranges, kiwi fruit, blackcurrants and strawberries – so forget the ice cream and have fruit salad for dessert.
Find out more about vitamin C and how it affects your health
And what about fluids? Drinking plenty of water – at least one litre a day – can help flush out uric acid.
Find out how much water you need to drink
Avoid sugar-sweetened soft drinks as these have been strongly associated with an increased risk of gout, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.
Finally, alcohol consumption is strongly linked with gout – and is the risk factor most of us already associated with the condition.
Alcohol units guide
Beer and spirits in particular raise the level of uric acid in the blood by boosting its production in the liver and reducing how much is passed out in urine. A moderate intake of wine doesn't appear to increase risk.
For more advice about gout, contact Arthritis Research UK: www.arthritisresearchuk.org