Clostridioides difficile (C. diff) is a bacterium (germ) that causes diarrhea and colitis (inflammation of the colon). Complications related to C. diff can result in serious injury and even death. Most cases occur while taking antibiotics or soon after finishing antibiotic treatment.
C. diff is estimated to cause nearly 500,000 illnesses in the US each year. Although C. diff bacteria are commonly found in the environment (in soil, air, water, human and animal feces, and food products), taking antibiotics greatly increases your chance of becoming ill from C. diff. Individuals on antibiotics are 7 to 10 times more likely to get C. diff while taking antibiotics or during the month after.
Antibiotics affect the whole microbiome, which means they not only affect the bacteria they are designed to attack, but also good bacteria that help our bodies fight infection. While taking antibiotics, individuals are more susceptible to C. diff and more likely to get sick if they come in contact with it.
C. diff are passed in feces and spread to other surfaces when people who are infected do not wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water. People can become infected by touching a surface contaminated with C. diff spores.
Risk factors for C. diff infection (CDI) may include:
- Antibiotic use
- Age 65 years or older (about 80 percent of C. diff deaths occur among adults 65+)
- Recent hospitalization or extended stay in a healthcare facility
- Weakened immune system
- Previous CDI or known exposure to C. diff
Symptoms of C. diff include:
- Stomach tenderness, pain, or cramping
- Loss of appetite
Complications can include:
- Inflammation of the colon (colitis)
- Severe diarrhea
- Serious intestinal conditions, such as a ruptured colon
- Know when to use antibiotics
Antibiotics should only be used to treat certain infections caused by bacteria. Antibiotics do NOT work on infections caused by viruses. Work with your healthcare professional to make sure you are getting the right antibiotic, at the right dosage, for the right amount of time.
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly
Washing your hands with soap and warm water (for at least 20 seconds) throughout the day and especially after using the restroom, can help prevent the spread of C. diff.
- Keep surfaces clean
Clostridioides difficile spores can survive normal cleaning and need to be killed with products containing chlorine bleach. Most hospitals use special cleaning products to kill C. diff, but you can make a cleaner at home by mixing 1-part bleach to 10 parts water.
Clostridioides difficile can be detected with a lab test of a patient’s stool sample and is usually treated with an antibiotic. Serious infections or complications may require hospitalization.
Reviewed May 2020
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mayo Clinic