The average human digestive tract is home to as many as 1,000 species of microorganisms. Most of them are harmless -- or even helpful -- under normal circumstances. But when something upsets the balance of these organisms in your gut, otherwise harmless bacteria can grow out of control and make you sick. One of the worst offenders is a bacterium called Clostridium difficile (C. difficile, or C. diff). As the bacteria overgrow they release toxins that attack the lining of the intestines, causing a condition called Clostridium difficile colitis.
Though relatively rare compared to other intestinal bacteria, C. diff is one of the most important causes of infectious diarrhea in the U.S.
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In some cases, C. diff infection can lead to a hole in the intestines, which can be fatal if not treated immediately.
C. diff can be diagnosed by stool specimens tested for the toxins. In some cases, a colonoscopy may be needed for diagnosis and more tests ordered.
Risk Factors for C. diff
Although C. diff occasionally causes problems in healthy people, it is most likely to affect patients in hospitals or long-term care facilities. Most have conditions that require long-term treatment with antibiotics, which kill off other intestinal bacteria that keep C. diff in check. While use of any antibiotic can potentially lead to C. diff overgrowth, it most commonly occurs with the use of an antibiotic that is broad-spectrum, or able to kill a wide variety of bacteria. It also happens more often when multiple antibiotics are needed to fight infection and when the antibiotics need to be taken for a long period of time.
Use of drugs called proton-pump inhibitors, which lessen stomach acid
Treatments for C. diff
Doctors typically prescribe a 10-day course of one of the following oral antibiotics: metronidazole (Flagyl), Dificid (fidaxomicin), or vancomycin (Vancocin). Flagyl is usually tried first. Improvement usually happens within 72 hours after starting antibiotics, but the diarrhea may return temporarily. Another round of antibiotics is needed in about 25% of cases.
In addition to prescribed medications, treatment may include:
Probiotics. Available in most drug and health food stores without a prescription, probiotics are "good" bacteria that colonize in the gut and may help keep C. diff. infection from recurring if taken along with prescribed medicines.
Fluids. Drinking plenty of water and other fluids or getting intravenous fluids can help guard against dehydration from diarrhea.
If you think you may have a C. diff infection, speak to your doctor before using an anti-diarrhea medicine. Stopping the diarrhea could actually make the C. diff infection worse.