skip to main content
Main Site Navigation
Top of main content

What Are Clostridium difficile Infections?

The bacterium named Clostridium difficile (or C. diff) causes mild illness such as diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation (swelling) of the intestine (colon). Infection usually occurs after use of antibiotics and are the most common ones that people get while they’re in hospitals. More than 3 million such infections occur yearly in the United States. Infection is more common in people age 65 and older and in people in hospitals and long-term care facilities, but even healthy people may get sick after prolonged antibiotic therapy.

What Causes C. diff Infections?

C. diff is associated with illness after use of antibiotics such as clindamycin, penicillins, fluoroquinolones and cephalosporins but it can occur with any antibiotic. Bacteria and dormant spores are spread by contact with stool and contaminated surfaces or food. People touch the surfaces and then their mouths without washing their hands. Such surfaces include bedpans, furniture, linens, and toilet seats.

What Are the Symptoms of C. diff Infections?

Symptoms include watery diarrhea 10 to 15 times a day and cramping and pain in the abdomen (belly) that can be severe. Others are fever, blood or pus in the stool, nausea, dehydration, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Severe illness can mean an inflamed colon (colitis) or patches of colon tissue that can bleed or make pus (pseudomembranous colitis). Some infected people never become sick but can still spread infection: they are called “carriers".

How Are C. diff Infections Diagnosed?

Diagnosis is suspected if there is a history of antibiotic use and the onset of typical symptoms. Diagnosis is confirmed by blood and stool tests. One test looks for bacterial toxins in the stool. Sometimes the colon is examined by flexible sigmoidoscopy and computed tomography (CT) if diagnosis is unclear or complications occur. A flexible sigmoidoscopy procedure involves putting a flexible tube with a small camera on one end into the colon.

How Are C. diff Infections Treated?

Stopping use of the antibiotic that triggered the infection is critical and may be the only needed treatment. Others may need a treatment course with a new antibiotic (metronidazole or vancomycin). These antibiotics keep C. diff from growing, while allowing normal bacteria to grow in the intestine. Fever usually goes away in 2 or 3 days, and diarrhea, in 3 or 4 days. Fluids are given for dehydration. Good nutrition is important. Other possible treatments are probiotics or, in severe cases, surgery to remove diseased parts of the colon. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria and yeast that help restore a healthy balance of microorganisms in the intestine. Relapse is common and needs more treatment. In resistant cases, the transplantation of feces from healthy donors with the use of tubes inserted in rectum or through the stomach has been very effecting in curing C. diff.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing C. diff Infections:

  • DO remember that hand-washing with soap and water is the best way to prevent infections.
  • DO make sure that your health care providers use disposable gloves, gowns, and proper washing methods before caring for you.
  • DO take antibiotics prescribed for C. diff until they’re finished.
  • DO make sure that all surfaces are disinfected with a product containing chlorine bleach.
  • DO drink plenty of fluids containing water, salt, and sugar, such as diluted fruit juice, soft drinks, and broths.
  • DO eat starchy foods if you have watery diarrhea. Potatoes, noodles, rice, cream of wheat, oatmeal, and saltine crackers are good.
  • DON’T take antibiotics unless you really need them. They don’t work for viral illnesses, such as colds.

Contact the following sources:

  • Medline Plus. A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health


Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

Ferri’s Netter Patient Advisor

Not sure which type of care is right for you?

We can help.