Health Library Explorer
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z A-Z Listings Contact Us

Clostridium Difficile (C. Diff) Infection

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) bacteria can be very harmful. They affect the intestinal tract. They can cause symptoms ranging from mild diarrhea to severe inflammation of the large intestine (colon). C. diff infection may also be called Clostridioides difficile infection. It's most common during the days and weeks after treatment with antibiotics. Anyone can become infected. But the risk is higher for people in hospitals and for people living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. This is because antibiotic use is common there. Germs also spread easily in these places.

Closeup of hands being washed with soap and water.

What causes C. diff infection?

The stomach and intestines have hundreds of kinds of bacteria. Many of these bacteria actually help keep harmful bacteria such as C. diff from causing problems. Small amounts of C. diff are normal in the intestine and don’t cause problems. When you take an antibiotic, the normal balance of good and bad bacteria may be affected. There may be too few good bacteria. This may allow the harmful bacteria such as C diff to grow. In hospitals and nursing homes, C. diff may be spread from an infected person to others. This can happen when staff or visitors touch infected people or objects (such as bed rails, stethoscopes, or bedpans) and then touch other people or surfaces.

What are the symptoms of C. diff infection?

About 5 out of 10 of people with C. diff infection have no symptoms. Yet they can still pass the infection to others. Others do have symptoms. These include:

  • Watery diarrhea, which may contain mucus

  • Pain and cramping

  • Fever

Some who are infected develop serious problems. Symptoms include:

  • Belly (abdominal) pain

  • Belly swelling

  • Upset stomach (nausea) and vomiting

  • Little or no diarrhea due to blockage of the large intestine

How is C. diff infection diagnosed?

To confirm the infection, a stool sample is taken. It's tested for the bacteria or the toxins made by the bacteria.

How is C. diff infection treated?

In many cases, you will be given an antibiotic or other medicine or therapy directed at the C. diff infection. Your healthcare provider might advise that you stop taking or change the antibiotics you have been prescribed. Talk with your provider before stopping or starting any medicines.

  • Fluids are often given by IV (intravenously) through a vein. This helps replace fluids lost through diarrhea.

  • In rare cases, you may need surgery if treatment doesn’t cure severe symptoms.

To reduce symptoms:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to replace water lost through diarrhea. Talk with your healthcare provider or nurse about which fluids are best.

  • Follow your provider’s instructions for when and what to eat.

  • Unless your provider tells you to do so, don't take medicines for diarrhea.

  • Tell your provider if symptoms return. Even after treatment, C. diff may come back.

Your healthcare provider may give you an additional treatment if your symptoms come back. Or if you are at risk for another C. diff infection. This could include:

  • A longer, decreasing course (called a taper) of treatment with the antibiotic vancomycin.

  • A procedure (fecal transplant) in which normal fecal material is put into your intestines. This is done to stop the C diff infection from coming back.

  • A medicine called bezlotoxumab. In some cases, it can help prevent your symptoms from returning.

What are possible complications of C. diff infection?

Complications include:

  • Fluid loss (dehydration)

  • Electrolyte imbalances

  • Low protein in the blood

  • Severe widening (dilation) of the large intestine

  • A hole (perforation) in the bowel

  • Low blood pressure

  • Kidney failure

  • Inflammation or infection all over the body

  • Death

How is C. diff prevented?

Hospitals and nursing homes take these steps to help prevent C. diff infections:

  • Limiting use of antibiotics. Giving antibiotics only when needed can help reduce C. diff infections.

  • Handwashing. Hospital staff should wash their hands before and after treating each person. They should also wash their hands after touching any surface in someone's' room. Soap and water and washing for 15 to 30 seconds works better than alcohol-based hand cleaners.

  • Protective clothing. Healthcare workers should wear gloves and a gown when entering the room of someone with C. diff infection. They should remove these items before leaving and then wash their hands.

  • Private rooms. People with C. diff should be in private rooms. Or they may share rooms with others who have the same infection.

  • Thorough cleaning. Equipment and rooms should be cleaned and disinfected every day and deep-cleaned between each new person staying there.

  • Education. Everyone should be shown the best ways to prevent infection.

You can do the following to help prevent C. diff:

  • Take antibiotics only when you really need them. Antibiotics don’t help treat illnesses caused by viruses. This includes colds and the flu. Don’t ask for antibiotics from your healthcare provider if he or she says they won’t work.

  • When you are given antibiotics, take them as directed. Don’t take more or less than the dosage prescribed. Don't take them for shorter or longer than your provider tells you to, even if you feel better.

  • Wash your hands carefully. Do this after using the bathroom and before eating. Use plenty of soap and warm water. And wash for 15 to 30 seconds. Alcohol-based hand cleaners may not work against C. diff germs.

  • Teach children correct handwashing. Show them good handwashing methods in all situations.

Everyone can help prevent C. diff:

In a hospital or care facility:

  • Wash your hands well before and after visiting someone who has C. diff infection. Use soap and water. Alcohol-based hand cleaners may not work against C. diff. They are not advised after contact with someone with C diff.

  • If the staff asks you to, wear gloves. Take any other steps you are asked to follow to help prevent infection.

At home:

  • If instructed, wear gloves when caring for a family member with C. diff infection. Throw the gloves away after each use. Then wash your hands well.

  • Wash the person’s clothes, bed linens, and towels separately. Use hot water. Use both detergent and liquid bleach.

  • Disinfect surfaces in the person’s room. This includes the phone, light switches, and remote controls.

Practice good handwashing

  • Use water (cold or warm) and plenty of soap. Rub your hands together well.

  • Clean your whole hand. Wash under nails, between fingers, and up your wrists.

  • Wash for at least 15 seconds to 20 seconds. 

  • Rinse. Let the water run down your fingers, not up your wrists.

  • Dry your hands well. Then use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
StayWell Disclaimer