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Clostridioides difficile, C. difficile, or just C. diff is a particularly nasty bacteria that can make us very sick. The bacteria itself has the name difficile because it was difficult to isolate and study when it was first discovered. Forms of the problem bacteria are found all over the environment, but most can’t make us sick. The organism itself doesn’t kill cells like a virus; instead, it can produce toxins that can kill cells in the gut. C. diff has over 800 different strains, but only a few produce dangerous toxins. Overall, C. diff causes dangerous infections in hundreds of thousands of patients each year.
Several people have C. diff inside their gut already, but it doesn’t cause them problems. Other bacteria in our gut can outcompete C. diff and keep it from causing damage. Unfortunately, one of the biggest medical breakthroughs, antibiotics, can destroy these helpful bacteria and allow C. diff to start running amok. In fact, any kind of immunosuppression can increase your risk of developing C. diff, including HIV/AIDS medications and those used after organ transplants. Being above 65 years old is another large risk factor. Close contact with some animals, like pigs, can also pose a risk. The most dangerous forms of C. diff are spread from person to person. This occurs with our most vulnerable populations: those in hospitals and those in elderly care. Due to the innate nature of care, people in hospitals and care homes can be exposed to C. diff unknowingly.
How does C. diff survive in the notoriously clean hospital environment? The bacteria has a special trick up its sleeve; it can become dormant – and almost invincible. C. diff has two life cycle stages, the spore and vegetative stage. While in the spore stage, C. diff is inactive. It doesn’t need to eat or breathe. While in this stage it can survive in the environment, the stomach, through most antibiotics, and through alcohol washes. When a C. diff spore makes it into our gut, however, trouble can begin. It germinates in the duodenum – the part of the intestine connected to the stomach. Here it transforms into the vegetative stage. In the vegetative stage, C. diff is active. It can’t survive the stomach or in oxygen, but thrives in the intestines. Here it grows and reproduces. This is also where some strains produce dangerous toxins.
The toxins of C. diff can produce a host of issues. The toxins can degrade and kill intestinal cells and cause inflammation of the intestines. Major symptoms are diarrhea, inflammation of the gut, and tissue necrosis (cell death). Other symptoms can include:
- Tenderness and pain in the stomach
- Loss of appetite and nausea
- A severely dilated colon (toxic megacolon)
- Sepsis (severe infection response)
So what can be done to fight C. diff? The first line of defense is the simplest: wash your hands! Prevention is the strongest barrier: avoid close contact with people who have an active infection and wash clothes and linens regularly. A medical professional (who should be wearing gloves!) can monitor any antibiotics an infected person is currently taking and might suggest probiotics. Some specific antibiotics target C. diff, including Metronidazole, Vancomycin, and Fidaxomicin. These may have unpleasant side effects, but can be effective. Treatments available include fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), antitoxins, new antibiotics, and injectable antibodies. Additionally, prophylactics that can help protect the gut and vaccines against the dangerous toxins are in development. Keep an eye out, and with your participation in clinical trials, we can help protect those at the highest risk from C. diff!
By Benton Lowey-Ball, BS Behavioral Neuroscience
Dayananda, P., & Wilcox, M. H. (2019). A review of mixed strain Clostridium difficile colonization and infection. Frontiers in microbiology, 10, 692.https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2019.00692
Smits, W. K., Lyras, D., Lacy, D. B., Wilcox, M. H., & Kuijper, E. J. (2016). Clostridium difficile infection. Nature reviews Disease primers, 2(1), 1-20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5453186/
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (September 7, 2022). What is C. diff https://www.cdc.gov/cdiff/what-is.html