Clostridium difficile, also known as C. difficile or C. diff, is bacterium that can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon.
Illness from C. difficile most commonly affects older adults in hospitals or in long term care facilities and typically occurs after use of antibiotic medications.
Watery diarrhea that happens several times a day is one of the many signs of a C. difficile infection. A person can have diarrhea and abdominal cramping even with a mild infection. If they have C. difficile, their diarrhea will have a very strong odor. In more serious infections, there may be blood in the stool.
Other symptoms of a serious infection include;
- Diarrhea more than 10 times a day
- Severe cramping
- Loss of appetite/weight loss
- Rapid heart rate
It’s fairly common to have mild diarrhea when starting an antibiotic. It may be caused by a mild C. difficile infection. But if a person has diarrhea three or more times a day and symptoms last for at least 2 days, they should see a doctor right away.
C. difficile bacteria are found throughout the environment – soil, air, water, human and animal feces, and food products, such as processed meats. A small number of healthy people naturally carry the bacteria in their large intestines and don’t have ill effects from the infections.
Spores from C. difficile bacteria are passed in feces and spread to food, surfaces and objects when people who are infected don’t wash their hands thoroughly.
These spores can persist in a room for weeks or months. If a person touches a surface contaminated C. difficile spores, they then unknowingly swallow the bacteria.
Once established, C. difficile can produce toxins that attack the lining of the intestine. The toxins destroy cells, produce patches (plaques) of inflammatory cells and decaying cellular debris inside the colon, and cause watery diarrhea.
The doctor will advise if a person needs hospital treatment (if they are not already in hospital). If the infection is mild, the patient should be able to recover at home.
If they are in the hospital, they might need to be moved to a room of their own during treatment to reduce the risk of the infection spreading to others.
Treatment for C. difficile can include;
- Stopping the antibiotics thought to be causing the infection, if possible – in mild cases, this may be the only treatment that’s needed.
- Taking the antibiotics thought to be causing the infection, if possible – in mild cases, this may be the only treatment that’s needed
- Taking a 10 – 14-day course of antibiotics that are known to kill the bacteria
- Rarely, serious infections may require surgery to remove a damaged section of the bowel
C. difficile infections usually respond well to treatment, with most people making a full recovery in a week or 2.
But symptoms come back in around 1 in 5 cases and treatment may need to be repeated.
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