The intestinal tract is home to billions of bacteria essential for digestion, metabolism, and immune function. When a person is ill and takes antibiotics, the medication kills some of the “good” species of bacteria, which protect against infection. As a result, harmful bacteria called Clostridium difficile, commonly known as C. difficile or C. diff, can multiply and overgrow. This can lead to severe diarrhea and colitis, or inflammation in the colon.
Most C. difficile infections occur in nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and hospitals—places where germs spread easily and people are vulnerable to infection. But they are also common in the community. C. difficile is spread mainly from person to person—by shaking hands, for example—but you can also contract an infection if you touch contaminated surfaces, such as tables, bed rails, door handles, toilets, or sinks, and then touch your eyes, mouth, or an open sore or cut.
Those who are at increased risk for C difficile infections include people over age 65, those who are in the hospital or who live in long-term healthcare facilities, and people who have had gastrointestinal surgery. People with weakened immune systems and those with diseases of the colon, such as inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer, are also at risk for C. difficile infections.
The most significant risk factor for a C. difficile infection is taking antibiotics or using antibiotics for long periods of time, meaning many months or years, which may be required for certain chronic health conditions. Use of certain antibiotics, such as clindamycin and fluoroquinolones, is also linked to C. difficile infections.
The best way to avoid infection with C. difficile is to take antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor and never share the medication with others. Preventing C. diff infections also involves good hand hygiene. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities take strict infection-control precautions, and visitors should use them as well. People visiting a loved one in a healthcare setting should wash their hands with soap and warm water before and after leaving the room or using the bathroom.
Healthcare providers put on gloves and wear a gown over their clothing while taking care of people with a C. difficile infection, and visitors may be asked to wear a gown and gloves. When leaving the room, hospital workers and visitors must remove their gown and gloves and practice good hand hygiene by washing with soap and water or using an alcohol-based cleanser.
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