What Is C. diff?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
September 25, 2017

When people ask, “What is C. diff?” they are really asking two questions: One: What is the illness like and, two, what causes it. Learn more.

C. diff stands for clostridium difficile, one of the many bacteria that populate the air, water, soil, and human and animal feces. You can have C. diff bacteria in your intestines without any symptoms. But in some people C. diff starts taking over like weeds in a garden; this is called clostridium difficile infection.

Is C. diff contagious?

Yes, the bacteria can spread from one person to another, but they would have to grow rapidly in your body to cause illness. That is most likely if you have weakened immunity or are taking antibiotics. Your body hosts many kinds of bacteria, and the balance among them affects your health. Antibiotics change that balance. If they kill too many of the bacteria that would normally compete with C. diff, you can end up with an overgrowth. Older adults in hospitals and nursing homes who are taking antibiotics are most at risk. Hospitals have to be very careful to avoid an outbreak of C. diff infectious diarrhea. If you do get C. diff in the hospital, you’ll be forced to stay there longer.


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Symptoms of C. diff

One of the first obvious signs is watery diarrhea with a bad odor several times a day. You may also have abdominal cramps and see blood in the toilet. You may have fever, feel nauseated, and lose your appetite. If the diarrhea is severe, you could become dehydrated, and the loss of fluids could affect your blood pressure. In severe cases, your colon becomes inflamed and can’t release gas or stool. If it swells and ruptures, you’ll need emergency surgery.

 C. diff overgrowth can also, in rare cases, create a dangerous hole in your large intestine.

The treatment for C. diff

Several stool tests look for C. diff, and your doctor might also order x-rays or a CT scan of your intestines. The standard treatment for C. diff is a course of antibiotics that specifically suppress its growth.

In up to 35 percent of patients, the overgrowth returns, causing symptoms. Two clinical trials reported in January 2017 in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine concluded that among patients who received a transfusion of Bezlotoxumab, a human antibody, along with the standard antibiotics, 16 or 17 percent suffered a recurrence, compared to 26 or 28 percent of patients who got a transfusion of saline, a placebo.

Although we don’t know the right balance of all the bacteria in the human body, we can screen a healthy person’s feces for parasites. If the feces have no known parasites, they can be a source of a balance of healthy bacteria. If you can’t shake an overgrowth, you may need a procedure called a fecal transplant, in which your doctor puts a healthy donor’s stool in your colon to repopulate it with a harmonious balance of bacteria.

Some people need surgery to remove damaged areas in your intestines.

You can protect yourself by washing your hands after you go to the bathroom and before you eat. Be cautious about taking common antibiotics. Can you treat an infection in another way? Don’t ask for antibiotics for viral infections (they won’t help), and never take leftover antibiotics on your own without medical advice.


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March 26, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN