C. diff is short for Clostridium difficile, an infectious bacterium that causes a condition called clostridium difficile colitis. Colitis refers to inflammation of the inner lining of your colon, which can produce a range of symptoms.

About 3 percent of adults and 66 percent of infants have C. diff in their intestines. However, other bacteria in the intestines usually keep the amount of C. diff under control. A C. diff infection happens when there’s too much of the bacterium in your intestines.

The main symptom of a C. diff infection is diarrhea. Other symptoms include:

  • diarrhea
  • stomach pain or cramps
  • nausea
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • dehydration
  • blood in stool (in severe cases)

C. diff infection symptoms 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 are resistant to many chemicals used for cleaning, so 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 antibiotics
  • spending a lot of time in hospitals
  • being older
  • having gastrointestinal surgery
  • having a weakened immune system
  • having kidney or liver disease
  • taking proton pump inhibitors

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, which they can analyze for toxins produced by the C. diff bacterium.

If your symptoms are severe, they may also perform a procedure called a flexible sigmoidoscopy. This involves inserting a long, thin device called a sigmoidoscope 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 antibiotics. If you’re already taking antibiotics for something else, they’ll likely have you stop taking them, if possible. Common antibiotics used to treat C. diff infections include:

  • metronidazole
  • vancomycin
  • fidaxomicin

In most cases, you can take antibiotics by mouth. However, more severe infections might require intravenous antibiotics. The CDC recommends taking antibiotics for at least 10 days to treat a C. diff infection.

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 fluids 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. This is a rare condition that causes an enlarged colon. Left untreated, your colon can rupture, which can be fatal.
  • Bowel perforation. Damage from the infection or toxic megacolon can cause a hole to form in your intestines.
  • Kidney failure. In severe cases of C. diff infection, rapid dehydration can lead to kidney failure.

Despite its resistant to many cleaning products, there are several things you can do prevent yourself from developing a C. diff infection.

Follows these tips to reduce your risk:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water, especially 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.
  • Keep surfaces in high-use areas, such as bathrooms and kitchens, clean. Try to periodically clean these areas with products containing bleach, which is effective against the C. diff bacterium.

Most C. diff infections respond well to a 10-day course of oral antibiotics. Once you start taking antibiotics, you should notice that your symptoms start to improve within a day or two. In more severe cases, you may need intravenous antibiotics. If you think you have a C. diff infection, try to see you doctor as soon as possible to avoid any complications.