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Clostridium difficile, more commonly known as C. diff, is a bacterium that can cause infection of the colon when the bacteria composition of your stomach is thrown off balance. About 500,000 people in the United States develop C. diff-related illnesses, but some medical professionals have said it has been occurring more frequently and is becoming harder to treat.

“We typically see cases of C. diff in people who live in nursing homes or require long hospital stays and in people who received an antibiotic for an infection within the past 3 months,” says Geisinger infectious disease specialist, Dr. Rowena Jimenez.

Here are five things to know about C. diff:

1. Your symptoms determine how severe of a case you have.

If you only have a mild C. diff infection, you might only experience stomach aches along with three or more bouts of diarrhea each day, lasting a few days.

“A more serious infection, however, can lead to about 15 occurrences of diarrhea each day, stronger stomach aches, no appetite, fever, rapid heart rate, dehydration, blood or pus in your stool and weight loss,” says Dr. Jimenez. 

Worst-case scenario, an untreated C. diff infection can lead to uncontrolled inflammation and distention in the colon that may lead to creation of a hole in the intestines that can be fatal. 

2. It is more common among hospital patients, or patients of extended-care facilities such as nursing homes especially if they recently received antibiotic therapy for another infection. 

When patients require medical treatment over a long period of time, they may be taking antibiotics that interfere with the stomach’s natural bacteria composition in ways that can lead to C. diff. Patients who take multiple antibiotics may especially be at risk. 

Other risk factors for C. diff include age, recent surgery of the gastrointestinal tract, and if a patient has kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease or colorectal cancer.  

3. It is contagious by contact or touching.  

If you’re infected, your fecal matter will contain C. diff spores that can live on dry surfaces and possibly infect someone who comes into contact with it. You can take a few precautions to avoid contracting a C. diff infection, including: 

  • Wash your hands regularly. If you visit a relative at a hospital or other healthcare facility, wash your hands before and after.
  • Get in the habit of washing the bathroom surfaces in your home with chlorine bleach-based products.

4. There are three common ways doctors diagnose C. diff.

To determine if you have C. diff, your doctor may ask for a stool sample to conduct a stool test — the easiest way to diagnose someone. He or she may also make the diagnosis after taking an x-ray or a CT scan of your colon to look for signs of C. diff. Rarely, your doctor may need to do a colon examination, which requires using a camera to look for signs that your colon is infected.  

5. Treatments can be complicated.

Even though an antibiotic may have caused a patient’s case of C. diff, the doctor might prescribe another antibiotic to treat it. Cases that produce more severe symptoms might require surgery to remove the infected portion of the colon.

Recurring cases might require a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), also known as stool transplant.

“A fecal transplant is where a donor’s stool is endoscopically placed into a patient’s colon in order to restore healthy bacteria,” says Dr. Jimenez.