Clostridioides difficile (klos-TRID-e-oi-deez dif-uh-SEEL) is a bacterium that causes an infection of the large intestine (colon). Symptoms can range from diarrhea to life-threatening damage to the colon. The bacterium is often referred to as C. difficile or C. diff.
Illness from C. difficile typically occurs after use of antibiotic medications. It most commonly affects older adults in hospitals or in long-term care facilities. In the United States, about 200,000 people are infected annually with C. difficile in a hospital or care setting. These numbers are lower than in previous years because of improved prevention measures.
People not in care settings or hospitals also can develop C. difficile infection. Some strains of the bacterium in the general population may cause serious infections or are more likely to affect younger people. In the United States, about 170,000 infections occur annually outside of health care settings, and these numbers are increasing.
The bacterium was formerly named Clostridium (klos-TRID-e-um) difficile.
Some people carry C. difficile bacteria in their intestines but never become sick. These individuals are carriers of the bacteria and may spread infections.
Signs and symptoms usually develop within 5 to 10 days after starting a course of antibiotics. However, they may occur as soon as the first day or up to three months later.
Mild to moderate infection
The most common signs and symptoms of mild to moderate C. difficile infection are:
- Watery diarrhea three or more times a day for more than one day
- Mild abdominal cramping and tenderness
People who have a severe C. difficile infection tend to become dehydrated and may need to be hospitalized. C. difficile can cause the colon to become inflamed and sometimes form patches of raw tissue that can bleed or produce pus. Signs and symptoms of severe infection include:
- Watery diarrhea as often as 10 to 15 times a day
- Abdominal cramping and pain, which may be severe
- Rapid heart rate
- Increased white blood cell count
- Kidney failure
- Loss of appetite
- Swollen abdomen
- Weight loss
- Blood or pus in the stool
C. difficile infection that is severe and sudden, an uncommon condition, may also cause intestinal inflammation leading to enlargement of the colon (also called toxic megacolon) and sepsis. Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body's response to an infection damages its own tissues. People who have these conditions are admitted to the intensive care unit.
When to see a doctor
Some people have loose stools during or shortly after antibiotic therapy. This may be caused by C. difficile infection. See your doctor if you have:
- Three or more watery stools a day
- Symptoms lasting more than two days
- A new fever
- Severe abdominal pain or cramping
- Blood in your stool
C. difficile bacteria enter the body through the mouth. They can begin reproducing in the small intestine. When they reach the large intestine (colon), they can release tissue-damaging toxins. These toxins destroy cells, produce patches of inflammatory cells and cellular debris, and cause watery diarrhea.
When the bacteria are outside the colon — virtually anywhere in the environment — they are in a dormant state, or essentially shutdown. This enables them to survive for a long time in any number of places:
- Human or animal feces
- Surfaces in a room
- Unwashed hands
- Food, including meat
When bacteria once again find their way into a person's digestive system, they "wake up" and can begin to produce infection again. The ability of dormant C. difficile to survive outside the body enables the generally easy transmission of the bacterium, particularly in the absence of thorough hand-washing and cleaning.
Although people who have no known risk factors have gotten sick from C. difficile, certain factors increase the risk.
Taking antibiotics or other medications
Your intestines contain about 100 trillion bacterial cells and between 500 to 2,000 different kinds of bacteria, many of which help protect your body from infection. When you take antibiotics to treat an infection, these drugs tend to destroy some of the helpful bacteria in your body in addition to the bacteria causing the infection.
Without enough helpful bacteria to keep it in check, C. difficile can quickly grow out of control. While any antibiotic can be implicated, the antibiotics that most often lead to C. difficile infection include:
Proton pump inhibitors, a type of medicine used to reduce stomach acid, also may increase your risk of C. difficile infection.
Staying in a health care facility
The majority of C. difficile infections occur in people who are or who have recently been in a health care setting — including hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities — where germs spread easily, antibiotic use is common and people are especially vulnerable to infection. In hospitals and nursing homes, C. difficile spreads on:
- Cart handles
- Bedside tables
- Toilets and sinks
- Stethoscopes, thermometers or other devices
- Remote controls
Having a serious illness or medical procedure
Certain medical conditions or procedures may make you more susceptible to a C. difficile infection, including:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Weakened immune system from a medical condition or treatment (such as chemotherapy)
- Chronic kidney disease
- Gastrointestinal procedure
- Other abdominal surgery
Other risk factors
Older age is a risk factor. 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.
Having one C. difficile infection increases your chance of having another one, and the risk continues to increase with each infection.
Women are more likely than men to have C. difficile infection, for reasons that are not clearly understood.
Complications of C. difficile infection include:
- Dehydration. Severe diarrhea can lead to a significant loss of fluids and electrolytes. This makes it difficult for your body to function normally and can cause blood pressure to drop to dangerously low levels.
- Kidney failure. In some cases, dehydration can occur so quickly that kidney function rapidly deteriorates (kidney failure).
- Toxic megacolon. In this rare condition, your colon is unable to expel gas and stool, causing it to become greatly enlarged (megacolon). Left untreated, your colon may rupture. Bacteria from the colon may then enter your abdominal cavity or bloodstream. Toxic megacolon may be fatal and requires emergency surgery.
- A hole in your large intestine (bowel perforation). This rare condition results from extensive damage to the lining of the colon or after toxic megacolon. Bacteria spilling from the colon into your abdominal cavity can lead to a life-threatening infection (peritonitis).
- Death. Rarely, mild to moderate C. difficile infection — but more commonly, serious infection — can quickly progress to fatal disease if not treated promptly.
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, follow recommended practices. Ask questions if you observe caregivers or other people not following guidelines.
Preventive measures include:
- Avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics. Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed for nonbacterial conditions, such as viral illnesses, that aren't helped by these drugs. Take a wait-and-see approach for these illnesses. If you do need an antibiotic, ask your doctor if it's possible to get a prescription for a drug that is taken for a shorter time or is a narrow-spectrum antibiotic. Narrow-spectrum antibiotics target a limited number of bacteria species and are less likely to affect healthy bacteria.
- Hand-washing. Health care workers should practice good hand hygiene before and after treating each person in their care. In the event of a C. difficile outbreak, using soap and warm water is a better choice for hand hygiene, because alcohol-based hand sanitizers don't effectively destroy C. difficile spores. Visitors also should wash their hands with soap and warm water before and after leaving the room or using the bathroom.
- Contact precautions. People who are hospitalized with C. difficile infection have a private room or share a room with someone who has the same illness. Hospital staff and visitors wear disposable gloves and isolation gowns while in the room.
- Thorough cleaning. In any health care setting, all surfaces should be carefully disinfected with a product that contains chlorine bleach. C. difficile spores can survive exposure to routine cleaning products that don't contain bleach.