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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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Symptoms of C. diff

C. difficile infection can range from mild to life-threatening. Symptoms of mild cases include watery diarrhea, three or more times a day for several days, with abdominal pain or tenderness.

Symptoms of more severe C. diff infection include:

  • Watery diarrhea, up to 15 times each day
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • Weight loss

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.

Other risk factors for C. diff infection include:

  • Surgery of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
  • Diseases of the colon such as inflammatory bowel disease or colorectal cancer
  • A weakened immune system
  • Use of chemotherapy drugs
  • Previous C. diff infection
  • Advanced age -- 65 or older
  • Kidney disease
  • Use of drugs called proton-pump inhibitors, which lessen stomach acid

 

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