Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, is a common bacterium that can cause diarrhea. It exists all around us in the air, water and soil, in feces from animals and humans.
It often occurs when people are taking antibiotics. It can cause complications such as a perforation in the colon (toxic megacolon) or septic shock.
Clostridioides difficile (klos-TRID-ee-oi-deez dif-uh-SEEL) is an ordinary bacterium, but when it infects the colon, it can cause diarrhea and serious conditions. It’s more common than people realize — it causes about half a million illnesses each year in the United States.
Most people get it after taking antibiotics and when their gut immunity is low — for example, from staying in a hospital or long-term care facility, where many patients are already sick and using antibiotics and where health care workers wash their hands frequently and between patients. But it can happen in other places, too.
If you have it, your healthcare provider may prescribe drugs to treat the infection or help prevent it coming back. Your symptoms will probably go away soon after you finish the antibiotics. If you have severe symptoms or complications, your provider might want to keep you in the hospital during treatment. They might give you fluids to prevent dehydration and IV medications through an enema.
C. diff produces spores that can survive for a long time on surfaces, so it spreads easily in hospitals and health care facilities. It also spreads from person to person because of the toxins it produces. Older adults and people taking antibiotics are most at risk for getting it.
If you have a mild case, it’s usually treated with the same antibiotics that caused your infection. Most infections clear up after a 10-day course of treatment, but symptoms can come back in about 1 in 5 cases.
To prevent a return of your symptoms, wash your hands often, especially after using the bathroom and before eating. Use a chlorine bleach-based product to clean surfaces you touch. Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. If symptoms get severe, you may need hospital treatment for toxic megacolon or a hole in your colon (bowel perforation). If this happens, doctors may try a new therapy: fecal transplant, where healthy bacteria from another person are put into your colon.
The bacteria that cause C. difficile spread from person to person through the stool, but also from touching surfaces that may have been contaminated by feces. Spores can survive for months on surfaces, including toilet seats and handles and reusable food containers. They’re resistant to heat, acid and many antibiotics and disinfectants.
A severe infection can lead to a hole in your colon (colon perforation), a large-enlarged colon that stops moving (toxic megacolon) or sepsis, a life-threatening condition where your body’s immune system attacks your organs.
The good news is that most cases of C. difficile clear up after stopping the antibiotic that caused them. But sometimes the bacterium comes back, which is why it’s important to talk to your doctor about your antibiotic use before you take any medication.
A person who is infected with C diff often experiences a temporary loss of weight. This happens because diarrhea and constipation can cause people to lose their appetite.
Many patients develop a temporary lactose intolerance, and so they need to consume calcium-fortified, non-dairy milk. They also need to avoid gluten, because it is hard to digest.
The best way to prevent a C Diff infection is to only take antibiotics when necessary. It is also important to wash one’s hands frequently, especially after using the restroom and before preparing food or touching surfaces. Also, it is recommended to consume foods containing probiotics and avoid those that are high in phytic acid, which can inhibit the growth of good bacteria in the gut.
Clostridium difficile infections are usually diagnosed by a GP, who will ask you about your symptoms and send off a sample of your poo for testing. A blood test or scans may also be needed if your infection is severe.
Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics that are known to kill C. difficile, which may need to be taken for 10 days or more. During treatment, you should drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
If you have a weak immune system, you might need extra treatment in hospital to prevent complications from developing, such as toxic megacolon (when the colon becomes grossly enlarged and can’t release stool). You might also be given fluids through an IV in a clinic or hospital. You might also be offered a treatment called fecal microbiota transplant, which involves placing healthy bacteria from another person into your colon to help repopulate it.