Clostridium difficile (klos-TRID-e-um dif-uh-SEEL), often called C. difficile or C. diff, is a bacterium that can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon.
Illness from C. difficile most commonly affects older adults in hospitals or in long-term care facilities and typically occurs after use of antibiotic medications. However, studies show increasing rates of C. difficile infection among people traditionally not considered high risk, such as younger and healthy individuals without a history of antibiotic use or exposure to health care facilities.
Each year, more than a half million people get sick from C. difficile, and in recent years, C. difficile infections have become more frequent, severe and difficult to treat.
Some people carry the bacterium C. difficile in their intestines but never become sick, though they can still spread the infection. C. difficile illness usually develops during or within a few months after a course of antibiotics.
Mild to moderate infection
When to see a doctor
C. difficile bacteria are found throughout the environment — in soil, air, water, human and animal feces, and food products, such as processed meats. A small number of healthy people naturally carry the bacteria in their large intestine and don't have ill effects from the infection.
C. difficile infection is most commonly associated with health care, occurring in hospitals and other health care facilities where a much higher percentage of people carry the bacteria. However, studies show increasing rates of community-associated C. difficile infection, which occurs among populations traditionally not considered high risk, such as children and people without a history of antibiotic use or recent hospitalization.
C. difficile bacteria are passed in feces and spread to food, surfaces and objects when people who are infected don't wash their hands thoroughly. The bacteria produce spores that can persist in a room for weeks or months. If you touch a surface contaminated with C. difficile, you may then unknowingly swallow the bacteria.
Your intestines contain millions of bacteria, many of which help protect your body from infection. But when you take an antibiotic to treat an infection, the drug can destroy some of the normal, helpful bacteria as well as the bacteria causing the illness. Without enough healthy bacteria, C. difficile can quickly grow out of control. The antibiotics that most often lead to C. difficile infections include fluoroquinolones, cephalosporins, clindamycin and penicillins.
Once established, C. difficile can produce toxins that attack the lining of the intestine. The toxins destroy cells and produce patches (plaques) of inflammatory cells and decaying cellular debris inside the colon and cause watery diarrhea.
Emergence of a new strain
Colon and rectum
The colon, also called the large intestine, is a long, tube-like organ in your abdomen. The colon carries waste to be expelled from the body. ...
Although people — including children — with no known risk factors have gotten sick from C. difficile, certain factors increase your risk.
Taking antibiotics or other medications
Staying in a health care facility
Having a serious illness or medical procedure
Older age is also a risk factor for C. difficile infection. In one study, the risk of becoming infected with C. difficile was 10 times greater for people age 65 and older compared with younger people.
After having a previous C. difficile infection, your chances of having a recurring infection can be up to 20 percent, and the risk increases further with every subsequent infection.
Complications of C. difficile infections include:
Tests and diagnosis
Doctors often suspect C. difficile in anyone with diarrhea who has recently taken antibiotics or when diarrhea develops a few days after hospitalization. In such cases, you're likely to have one or more of the following tests.
Testing for C. difficile is unnecessary if you're not having diarrhea or watery stools.
Treatments and drugs
The first step in treating C. difficile is to stop taking the antibiotic that triggered the infection, when possible. Depending on the severity of your infection, treatment may include:
Your risk of recurrence is higher if you:
Treatment for recurrent disease may include:
Lifestyle and home remedies
Supportive treatment for diarrhea includes:
To help prevent the spread of C. difficile, hospitals and other health care facilities follow strict infection-control guidelines. If you have a friend or family member in a hospital or nursing home, don't be afraid to remind caregivers to follow the recommended precautions.
Preventive measures include:
Last Updated: 2013-07-16
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