A photo of a woman sitting on the ground holding her stomach in discomfort.

What You Need to Know About C. diff

Symptoms of C. diff

Many healthy adults have C. diff (also known as C. difficile or Clostridioides difficile) within their colons without resulting in any illnesses. According to the  American College of Gastroenterology (ACG), C. diff is more common in newborns and infants than in adults affecting 84.4% of infants and 5 to 15% of adults). 

Typically, other organisms within the intestinal tract keep C. diff bacteria in check. However, a C. diff infection can occur when there is an overgrowth of those organisms. 

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show:

  • The U.S. sees approximately half a million C. diff infections each year. 
  • Roughly 1 in 6 patients who get C. diff will get a re-infection of the bacteria within 2 to 8 weeks after the initial infection. 
  • 1 in 11 people over 65 years of age will die within one month of a C. diff infection. 

Most cases of C. diff do not result in any complication. However, in rare instances the following complications may occur: 

  • A ruptured colon, which may be fatal.
  • Bowel perforation, which is a hole in the intestine.
  • Injury to the kidneys due to severe dehydration. 

C. diff is a communicable disease, meaning one person can pass it over to another. Older adults who are hospitalized or residing in a healthcare facility are most at risk for developing a C. diff infection. 

Risk Factors for C. diff

Anyone can be impacted by C. diff, though some people are more susceptible than others. In many cases, C. diff overgrowth happens after an individual undergoes antibiotic treatment for another illness. 

Other risk factors for C. diff are:

  • Age 65 or older.
  • Undergoing gastrointestinal surgery.
  • Immunocompromised.
  • Recently hospitalized.
  • Chronic liver or kidney disease.
  • Residing in a nursing home.
  • A previous infection of C. diff.

The two primary causes of C. diff are feces and antibiotics. Surfaces contaminated with feces that contain C. diff can transfer the bacteria to another person.

Antibiotics, especially when administered to older adults, can alter the levels of bacteria in the digestive system. The microbial changes within the intestines can result in an overgrowth of C. diff. 

What Are the Symptoms of C. diff.? 

The symptoms of C. diff can range from mild to severe. Most cases of C. diff have diarrhea as a primary symptom. Other symptoms include: 

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Nausea.
  • Cramps.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Dehydration.
  • Fever.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • In severe cases, an individual may have blood in the stool. 

Individuals who experience diarrhea three or more times each day or see symptoms persist after two or three days should seek assistance from a medical professional. 

Is C. diff Contagious? 

Surfaces that are contaminated with C. diff can cause C. diff if the bacteria enter the mouth. Therefore, C. diff is contagious and can be passed from person to person. 

People with a C. diff infection need to take precautions against the infection of others. The CDC recommends that people with a C. diff infection use a separate bathroom, if possible, especially when they show signs of diarrhea. 

Individuals caring for someone infected with C. diff should also take steps to prevent the spread of C. diff.: 

  • Strict adherence to proper handwashing techniques. 
  • Careful cleaning or disposal of contaminated wastes like bedpans and diapers. 
  • Washing bed sheets and clothing thoroughly. 
  • Consistent decontamination of high-touch areas.

What Are the Treatment Options?

A 10-day course of antibiotic therapy is the main treatment for C. diff. The most common antibiotics used to treat C. diff are: 

  • Fidaxomicin
  • Vancomycin
  • Metronidazole

Although most antibiotic treatments for C. diff are taken by mouth, some cases require intravenous antibiotic therapy. Individuals with re-current C. diff infections may need a fecal microbiota transplant or colon removal, in addition to antibiotic therapy. To prevent dehydration, people infected with C. diff should drink plenty of fluids. 

Diet and C. diff

What a person consumes during and after treatment is essential to a successful recovery. Consuming foods that help control diarrhea and are easy on the digestive system can help re-populate the intestines with beneficial bacteria and keep C. diff in check. Eating foods that are nutrient-dense can help counter the malabsorption of nutrients that comes with digestive problems. 

Individuals infected or recovering from C. diff may benefit from the following diet changes: 

  • Addition of probiotics to combat C. diff bacteria — which are found in active yogurt cultures and fermented foods. 
  • Water and broth-based soups. 
  • Calcium from soy milk or almond milk. 
  • Soluble fiber from foods like oatmeal and lentils.
  • Protein-rich foods from low-fat sources like eggs and chicken. 
  • Non-cruciferous vegetables that are thoroughly cooked or blended into a juice. 
  • Starchy foods that are easy to digest, like bananas or white rice. 

The foods to avoid when diagnosed with C. diff are: 

  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or cabbage. 
  • Raw vegetables.
  • Fried foods.
  • Spicy food.
  • Caffeine.
  • Beans.
  • Synthetic cooking oils.

If nausea or vomiting is a problem, it may help to keep to a liquid diet until the stomach settles. 

When to Seek Medical Help

Although the symptoms of C. diff are like those of other intestinal infections, what sets a C. diff infection apart from others are the circumstances under which the symptoms start. 

The following individuals should seek help from a physician when experiencing signs and symptoms of a C. diff infection:  

  • Currently under antibiotic treatment or just finished antibiotic treatment. 
  • Over 65 years of age. 
  • Currently in or have been recently discharged from a hospital or nursing home. 
  • Exposed to someone with a C. diff infection. 

Early identification and treatment of C. diff can help prevent complications and keep it from recurring. 

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