C. diff is short for Clostridium difficile, an infectious bacterium that causes a condition known as clostridium difficile colitis.
Colitis refers to inflammation of the wall of your colon. It can produce a range of symptoms.
Between 5 to 15 percent of healthy adults — and 84.4 percent of newborns and healthy infants — have C. diff in their intestines, according to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG). However, other bacteria that live in the intestines usually keep the amount of C. diff under control.
A C. diff infection occurs when there’s too much of the bacterium in your intestines.
The main symptom of a C. diff infection is diarrhea. Other symptoms include:
Symptoms of a C. diff infection can range from mild to severe. Call your doctor if you notice you’re having diarrhea three or more times a day or your symptoms aren’t going away after two or three days.
You should also seek immediate treatment if you have severe abdominal pain or notice blood in your stool.
The C. diff bacterium comes from feces. You can develop an infection if you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your mouth.
In addition, the spores of C. diff are resistant to many chemicals used for cleaning. As a result, they can stick around for a long time.
While anyone can develop a C. diff infection, some people have an increased risk.
Things that can increase your risk include:
- taking antibiotics, especially a long course of broad spectrum antibiotics
- spending a lot of time in hospitals
- older age
- having gastrointestinal surgery
- having a weakened immune system
- having chronic kidney or liver disease
- taking proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
- prior C. diff infection
To diagnose a C. diff infection, your doctor will start by asking some questions about your symptoms and medical history. Next, they may order a stool sample. They can analyze it for toxins or toxin genes of the C. diff bacterium.
If your symptoms are severe, they may also perform a procedure called a sigmoidoscopy.
A long, thin device called a sigmoidoscope is inserted into your colon. This allows your doctor to get a better look at your colon and check for signs of inflammation.
C. diff infections require treatment with antibiotic therapy. If you’re already taking an antibiotic for something else, your doctor may have you stop taking it, if possible.
Common antibiotics used to treat C. diff infections include:
- fidaxomicin (Dificid)
- metronidazole (Flagyl)
- vancomycin (Firvanq)
Oral fidaxomicin and oral vancomycin are both first-line treatment options for C. diff, according to recent clinical practice guidelines.
Oral metronidazole is less effective and is used as a suggested alternative treatment for a nonsevere initial C. diff infection, if fidaxomicin or vancomycin aren’t available.
In most cases, you can take the antibiotics by mouth, which is the standard therapy for the three options noted above. However, some infections might require intravenous (IV) antibiotic therapy.
In the case of someone with recurrent C. diff who’s had at least two recurrences after the first episode, a fecal microbiota transplant may be considered as a potential treatment option, after antibiotic therapy.
As you recover, make sure to drink plenty of fluids. Having diarrhea often leads to dehydration, so it’s important to replenish the fluids you lose. In more severe cases, you may need intravenous fluid to treat dehydration as well.
In very rare cases, you may need surgery to remove the affected part of your colon.
While most C. diff infections don’t cause any long-term problems, more serious ones can lead to complications, such as:
- Toxic megacolon. Toxic megacolon is a rare condition that causes a grossly enlarged colon. Left untreated, your colon can rupture. This can be fatal.
- Bowel perforation. Damage from the infection or toxic megacolon can cause a hole to form in your intestines.
- Kidney injury. In severe cases of C. diff infection, rapid dehydration can lead to acute kidney injury.
Despite its resistance to many cleaning products, there are several things you can do to prevent yourself from developing or spreading a C. diff infection.
Follow these tips to reduce your risk:
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water. This is especially important after using the bathroom and before eating.
- Don’t take antibiotics unnecessarily. Keep in mind that antibiotics are only effective for bacterial infections and won’t treat a viral infection, such as the flu or common cold.
- Keep surfaces in high-use areas clean. This includes bathrooms and kitchens. Try to periodically clean these areas with products containing bleach. Bleach is effective against the C. diff bacterium.
Most C. diff infections respond well to a 10-day course of oral antibiotic treatment.
Once you start taking the antibiotic, you should notice your symptoms start to improve within a day or two. In more severe cases, you may need an IV antibiotic in addition to oral antibiotic therapy.
If you think you have a C. diff infection, try to see a doctor as soon as possible to avoid any complications.