Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention

Definition

Clostridium difficile (C diff) is an infection of the intestine that is caused by a specific bacteria. In some people, the infection causes symptoms, such as diarrhea. In others it can cause severe illness.

The Intestines

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Causes

The infection is caused by the C diff bacterium. The bacterium makes toxins as it grows. These toxins irritate the intestinal lining, which can lead to swelling and pain.

The intestines normally have a healthy balance of bacteria that help with digestion. Antibiotics can disturb this balance by killing some bacteria which lets others grow in their place. If C diff is present, it may be able to grow after certain antibiotics.

C diff can also be picked up in the environment. The bacteria can pass from soiled surfaces to the hands, then to the mouth.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase the chances of infection include:

  • Recent antibiotic use
  • Increasing age (> 65 years old)
  • Recent hospital stay
  • Having intestinal diseases
  • History of prior C diff infection
  • Weakened immune system
  • Possibly use of proton pump inhibitors

Symptoms

In those that have symptoms, they may include:

  • Watery diarrhea—at least 3 times within 24 hours
  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Bloating
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. A C diff diagnosis is based on your symptoms and test results.

Common tests include:

  • Stool tests—to detect the bacterium and identify its toxins
  • Blood tests—to check blood cell counts and kidney function

Less often the following test may be done:

  • Endoscopy—to collect intestinal cell samples and check for damage
  • Imaging tests:
    • X-rays
    • CT scan

Treatment

People who have C diff but do not have symptoms do not need treatment.

Medications causing C diff infection may be stopped or changed.

C diff infection is treated with specific antibiotics. The doctor will choose the antibiotic based on the severity of the infection.

Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT)

FMT is an experimental treatment that may be used for people with frequent C diff infections or severe C diff that cannot be treated with medications or surgery. It places stool from a healthy donor in to a recipient's intestines. The donated material may help restore a healthy balance of bacteria in the intestine.

Surgery

Severe, life threatening infections may need treatment with surgery:

  • Partial colectomy—The affected part of the colon is removed. The 2 healthy ends of the colon are joined together.
  • Illeostomy with irrigation—The small intestine is brought through the abdominal wall. This opening allows stool to leave the body. A liquid is used to flush the infected part of colon.

Prevention

Proper hand washing is the best way to prevent C diff from spreading. Wash your hands with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom. Other preventive methods include:

  • Probiotics from food or supplements may be helpful
  • Using medications as prescribed. Do not take antibiotics unless your doctor prescribes them. It is important to take them as instructed.
  • Cleaning surfaces with disinfectants often, especially if someone at home is sick.
  • Making sure any healthcare staff who comes in contact with you washes their hands first.