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What to Know About C. Diff, a Common (But Serious) Colon Infection

Did you recently have a hospital stay? Have you been taking antibiotics? And have you been getting severe diarrhea too? If you said “yes” to a few of these, then you may have what’s called C. diff.

Also known as Clostridioides difficile or C. difficile, this germ causes almost half a million infections in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And although it’s common, C. diff can be quite serious and even life-threatening. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates 15,000 yearly deaths could be directly tied to Clostridium difficile infections.

We spoke to Helen Arnold, infection prevention director for Banner Desert Medical Center about infections, treatment and how to prevent C. diff. Knowing those details and exercising good habits can help keep you and others safe.

What is C. diff?

C. diff is an infection in your digestive system (large intestine or colon), and most cases occur when you’re taking antibiotics or shortly after you’ve stopped taking them. Antibiotics can be essential in the healing process for many bacterial infections, conditions and injuries. However, in the process of killing dangerous germs, they can sometimes also kill the germs that protect your body against harmful infections. So, it’s important to understand how they work and when they’re appropriate.

For instance, antibiotics, Arnold explained, are not effective in fighting viral illnesses — though many patients think they do. “I think the most common misconception remains that antibiotics are a cure-all for all infections,” Arnold added. “They are designed to treat specific bacteria which cause specific symptoms.”

In addition to antibiotic use, the CDC lists the following common risk factors for C. diff:

  • Age (65 or older)
  • Recent stay at a hospital, nursing home or long term care facility
  • A weakened immune system (people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, or organ transplant patients taking immunosuppressive drugs)
  • Previous infection with C. diff or known exposure to the germs

Symptoms of C. diff can start only a few days after you’ve started taking a course of antibiotics. In addition to diarrhea, possible symptoms of C. diff  infection include:

Treating C. diff

Folks taking antibiotics often get diarrhea, but they don’t necessarily have C. diff. Severe diarrhea, however, can be a telltale sign — so if that’s you, the CDC recommends getting medical care.

Your health care professional will review your symptoms and order a lab test of your stool sample. If you test positive for C. diff, you’ll likely be prescribed an antibiotic like vancomycin or fidaxomicin for at least 10 days.

Arnold explained that if someone is losing fluids a lot faster than they can naturally replenish them — and if they can’t tolerate eating food — then they may need a brief hospital stay with IV fluids and possibly electrolyte replacement.

In rare cases, a severe and sudden infection of C. difficile can cause inflammation in the intestines, which can lead to the enlargement of the colon, known as toxic megacolon, and sepsis.

Since C. diff can inflame your intestinal lining, you may also need to slowly transition back to normal food.

C. diff safety tips

To keep C. diff from spreading to others, the CDC recommends the following:

  • Wash hands with soap and water every time you use the bathroom and always before you eat. It’s important to note that hand sanitizer does not effectively remove C. diff spores from your hands, Arnold said.
  • If you have diarrhea use a separate bathroom, if possible.
  • Take showers and wash with soap.
  • Using a mix of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water, regularly clean items that are touched by hands (doorknobs, electronics, refrigerator handles, shared cups, etc.). Bleach kills C. diff  bacteria spores on surfaces.
  • Regularly wash bed linens, towels, household linens and clothing (especially underwear).

When laundering in the washer, use the hottest water that is safe for those items, and use chlorine bleach if the items can be safely washed with it. When handling dirty laundry, consider using gloves, and always wash your hands afterward with soap and water.

C. diff recovery

Recovery, Arnold said, usually takes about two weeks. Patients can get back to normal activities once their symptoms have stopped.

Once treatment is complete, it’s unlikely that your C. diff will be passed on to others, but Arnold explained that recovered patients can still carry germs. According to the CDC, 1 in 6 patients who get C. diff will get it again within 2-8 weeks. That means continued, diligent and thorough hygiene habits are super important.

If you or someone you know are experiencing C. diff symptoms, visit bannerhealth.com to find a specialist in your area. You may also want to read these related articles, written with help from other Banner Health experts:

Gastroenterology Infectious Disease