Understanding C. Diff

You have probably heard it referred to as “C Diff.” That's short for “clostridium difficile,” and no amount of name-shortening could make it any less pleasant. Each year, more than a half million people get sick from C. diff.

C. diff is a bacterium that can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon. It usually hits older adults, most frequently after they use antibiotics and/or those in long-term care facilities. Alarmingly, however, new studies are showing an increase in C. diff infections among younger and healthy individuals without a history of antibiotic use or exposure to health care facilities. Worse, the infections are becoming more frequent, severe, and difficult to treat.

The bacteria are found throughout the environment — in soil, air, water, human and animal feces, and food products, such as processed meats. C. diff is passed in feces and spread to food, surfaces and objects when people who are infected do not wash their hands thoroughly. The bacteria produce spores that can persist in a room for weeks or months. If you touch a surface contaminated with C. diff, you may then unknowingly swallow the bacteria.

Once established, C. diff can produce toxins that attack the lining of the intestine. The toxins destroy cells and produce patches of inflammatory cells and decaying cellular debris inside the colon and cause watery diarrhea.

You can have the C. diff bacterium inside your intestines and not experience any symptoms. Those you come into contact with may not be so lucky: you can spread the infection whether or not you experience symptoms yourself.

If you do experience symptoms, they will appear like this:

  • Watery diarrhea three or more times a day for two or more days
  • Mild abdominal cramping and tenderness

In extreme cases, you run the risk of dehydration and will require hospitalization. Your colon will likely become inflamed. Other signs of an extreme infection include:

  • Watery diarrhea 10 to 15 times a day
  • Abdominal cramping and pain, which may be severe
  • Fever
  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Kidney failure
  • Increased white blood cell count

Your doctor will take a sample of your stool to analyze in order to diagnose C. diff. Once diagnosed, your doctor will likely prescribe the antibioticmetronidazole if he deems your case mild to moderate, or vancomycin if your infection is more severe. Both medications may be taken orally.