Clostridium difficile, more commonly called C. difficile or C. diff for short, is a bacterium that is pretty much everywhere—under our feet in the dirt, in our water, and floating in the air. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), C. diff is responsible for nearly 500,000 illnesses in the United States every year, making it one of the most prevalent infectious diseases.
Many of us have C. difficile bacteria in our intestines, but we would never know it because we are not experiencing any symptoms. If you are taking antibiotics, especially for a long period of time, you are at a higher risk of becoming infected. Antibiotics can disrupt your normal gut bacteria and allow C. diff to multiply in your colon, leading to serious inflammation. Here’s a look at this highly contagious bacteria, how it’s spread, who is at risk, and if you do get it, how to treat it.
What Is C. Diff?
Clostridium difficile or C. diff is a bacterium that thrives in low-oxygen environments such as soil, water, or our bodies. It is one of the most common causes of infections in the colon, ever since its identification in 1935.
Researchers believe the period between exposure to C. diff and the appearance of the first symptoms is around seven days if the conditions are favorable. However, you may contract C. diff and develop no initial signs, but the bacteria begins to grow over a period of years when symptoms do start appearing.
Symptoms of C. Diff
Symptoms of C. diff infection can vary from person to person. On the milder side, you may have watery diarrhea 3 or more times a day with abdominal pain or tenderness. In more severe cases, diarrhea is overwhelming with intense abdominal pain, blood or pus in your stool, fever, weight loss, and loss of appetite. C. diff causes your diarrhea to smell extremely odorous, unlike normal day-to-day bowel movements. Other common symptoms include bloating, fever, nausea, dehydration, and rapid heart rate.
Is C. Diff Contagious?
C. diff is very contagious and can be spread from person-to-person by direct contact or by touching an object or surface that has been contaminated by an infected person. C. diff bacteria is carried in stool, and the infected fecal matter can contaminate surfaces or material that it comes into contact with. Without proper cleaning and disinfection, C. difficile spores are resilient and can survive on a surface for up to 5 months. Spores can remain on areas like toilets and bathroom surfaces, bed rails, light switches, clothing, and bedsheets.
C. diff often shows up in nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and hospitals where there are many patients, especially those needing assistance with toileting or who are ill. Care workers can spread the bacteria between residents as they tend to patients, help them in the bathroom, or conduct daily medical checks. It is essential to follow strict hand-washing routines, use thorough surface cleaning methods, and isolate patients who are very ill to help prevent C. diff from spreading.
Who’s at Risk?
A few people are at a higher risk for C. diff than others, such as individuals living in health care facilities where larger groups of people are together and workers have contact with numerous patients every day. Residents who are taking antibiotics are at an even higher risk because much of their good gut bacteria is eliminated by the medication. Without this healthy bacteria, the body becomes susceptible to viruses and infections, including C. diff. Other medications, such as proton pump inhibitors to reduce stomach acid, may up your odds of contracting C. diff.
Clostridium difficile infections do affect all ages however, and can be contracted by digging in the dirt or ingesting lake water, or interacting with a person or surface that carries the bacteria. Proper hand washing and disinfection of living areas are vital to reducing these risk factors and preventing contagion.
Other conditions and diseases can increase your risk of C. diff, including cancer, bowel disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, and compromised immune systems.
What Problems Can C. Diff Cause?
One of the biggest concerns of C. diff, especially after a long period of diarrhea, is dehydration. When you begin to rapidly lose fluids, your body suffers and your blood pressure and kidney function are affected, as well as your overall health.
In some cases, a C. diff infection can also lead to bowel perforation or toxic megacolon, both of which can be life-threatening. The CDC states that 1 in 11 Americans over age 65 die within a month of health care-associated C. diff diagnosis.
C. Diff Diagnosis
Your C. diff diagnosis begins with a visit to your health care provider. The physician will run through your symptoms, your medical history, and any recent travel. He or she will ask when your symptoms first began and have you judge your pain and severity on a number scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most painful. A stool test can also provide a more accurate diagnosis by looking for the C. diff cytotoxin, which is a type of substance that is toxic to your body.
If your doctor is concerned you may have colon issues, your intestines may be X-rayed or scanned to look for any abnormalities or potential damage.
C. Diff Treatment
If you develop the C. diff infection due to antibiotic use and are trying to fight another illness, you may need to stop taking this medication. If it is a severe infection, this may not be an option. When you are infected with C. diff and become ill, you will be prescribed antibiotics for about 10 to 14 days. If you are dealing with an extreme case and/or have colon damage, your doctor may also suggest surgery.
If you are not having luck kicking C. diff with antibiotics, your doctor may recommend a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT). FMT involves collecting stool from a healthy donor, rinsing it, and diluting the sample with saline or another solution. This sample is then transplanted directly into your colon using an enema, or procedures like a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. This process takes healthy, “good” gut bacteria from the donor stool and transplants it into the infected person. The good bacteria helps the injured or diseased colon heal after a C. diff infection.
If you have C. diff, you become less contagious to others as your symptoms begin to disappear and the toxin is no longer detected in a stool sample. However, it is important to note, when you are infected, there is a chance you may relapse or continue to carry Clostridium difficile, making it difficult to say if you are no longer contagious to others.
C. Diff and Diet
Anyone with this type of infection should make sure to speak with their doctor about what they should and should not eat. Your colon needs time to rest and heal, and choosing the right foods while avoiding others can be very helpful. If you experience mild diarrhea, you may want to follow these tips:
- Rest your stomach as much as possible by eating gentle foods.
- Sip clear fluids, such as water, herbal tea, and diluted fruit juice frequently.
- Avoid acidic or caffeinated liquids.
- Eat plain foods, such as bananas, crackers, pasta, rice, applesauce, and toast.
- Avoid foods that are spicy, acidic, or high in fat.
- Do not take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
According to one study, eating foods or supplements that contain probiotics can introduce and maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your system and reduce the symptoms of C. diff. Foods rich in probiotics include fermented foods, such as yogurt, miso, and sauerkraut. You can also find probiotic pills and powders.
Can You Cure C. Diff?
C. difficile infection is a bowel infection that can cause colitis (inflammation of the colon) and lead to serious complications without treatment. Many C. diff infections are mild and short-lived, but it is important to see a doctor if you develop severe diarrhea or abdominal pain after taking antibiotics. If a C. diff infection returns, your doctor may recommend the FMT treatment discussed above to help repopulate the colon with healthy bacteria.