C. difficile infection

Clostridium difficile (klos-TRID-e-um dif-uh-SEEL), often called C. difficile or C. diff, is a bacterium that can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon.

Illness from C. difficile most commonly affects older adults in hospitals or in long-term care facilities and typically occurs after use of antibiotic medications. However, studies show increasing rates of C. difficile infection among people traditionally not considered high risk, such as younger and healthy individuals without a history of antibiotic use or exposure to health care facilities.

Each year, more than a half million people get sick from C. difficile, and in recent years, C. difficile infections have become more frequent, severe and difficult to treat.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Some people carry the bacterium C. difficile in their intestines but never become sick, though they can still spread the infection. C. difficile illness usually develops during or within a few months after a course of antibiotics.

Mild to moderate infection

The most common symptoms of mild to moderate C. difficile infection are:

  • Watery diarrhea three or more times a day for two or more days
  • Mild abdominal cramping and tenderness

Severe infection

In severe cases, people tend to become dehydrated and may need hospitalization. C. difficile causes the colon to become inflamed (colitis) and sometimes may form patches of raw tissue that can bleed or produce pus (pseudomembranous colitis). Signs and symptoms of severe infection include:

  • Watery diarrhea 10 to 15 times a day
  • Abdominal cramping and pain, which may be severe
  • Fever
  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Kidney failure
  • Increased white blood cell count

When to see a doctor

Some people have loose stools during or shortly after antibiotic therapy. This may be due to C. difficile infection. See your doctor if you have three or more watery stools a day and symptoms lasting more than two days or if you have a new fever, severe abdominal pain or cramping, or blood in your stool.

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