Clostridium difficile

Clostridium difficile, also known as C. difficile or C. diff, is a bacterium that can infect the bowel and cause diarrhoea.

The infection most commonly affects people who have recently been treated with antibiotics, but can spread easily to others.

C. difficile infections are unpleasant and can sometimes cause serious bowel problems, but they can usually be treated with another course of antibiotics.

This page covers:

Symptoms of a C. difficile infection

Who's most at risk of C. difficile?

When to get medical advice

Treatment for C. difficile

Looking after yourself at home

How you get C. difficile

How to stop C. difficile spreading

Symptoms of a C. difficile infection

Symptoms of a C. difficile infection usually develop when you're taking antibiotics, or when you've finished taking them within the last few weeks.

The most common symptoms are:

In some cases, serious complications can develop, such as damage to the bowel or severe dehydration, which may cause drowsiness, confusion, a rapid heart rate and fainting.

Who's most at risk of C. difficile?

C. difficile mostly affects people who:

Clostridium difficile

Many C. difficile infections used to occur in places where many people take antibiotics and are in close contact with each other, such as hospitals and care homes.

However, strict infection control measures have helped to reduce this risk, and an increasing number of C. difficile infections now occur outside these settings.

When to get medical advice

Visiting your GP surgery with a possible C. difficile infection can put others at risk, so it's best to call your GP or NHS 111 if you're concerned or feel you need advice.

Get medical advice if:

Diarrhoea can be caused by a number of conditions and is a common side effect of antibiotics, so having diarrhoea while taking antibiotics doesn't necessarily mean you have a C. difficile infection.

Your GP may suggest sending off a sample of your poo to confirm whether you have C. difficile. A blood test may also be carried out to help determine how severe the infection is, and sometimes you may need tests or scans in hospital to check if your bowel is damaged.

Treatment for C. difficile

Your GP will decide whether you need hospital treatment (if you're not already in hospital). If the infection is relatively mild, you may be treated at home.

If you're in hospital, you might be moved to a room of your own during treatment to reduce the risk of the infection spreading to others.

Treatment for C. difficile can include:

C. difficile infections usually respond well to treatment, with most people making a full recovery in a week or two. However, the symptoms come back in around 1 in 5 cases and treatment may need to be repeated.

Looking after yourself at home

If you're well enough to be treated at home, the following measures can help relieve your symptoms and prevent the infection spreading:

Your GP may contact you regularly to make sure you're getting better. Call them if your symptoms return after treatment finishes, as it may need to be repeated.

How you get C. difficile

C. difficile bacteria are found in the digestive system of about 1 in every 30 healthy adults. The bacteria often live harmlessly because the other bacteria normally found in the bowel keep it under control.

However, some antibiotics can interfere with the balance of bacteria in the bowel, which can cause the C. difficile bacteria to multiply and produce toxins that make the person ill.

When this happens, C. difficile can spread easily to other people because the bacteria are passed out of the body in the person's diarrhoea.

Once out of the body, the bacteria turn into resistant cells called spores. These can survive for long periods on hands, surfaces (such as toilets), objects and clothing unless they're thoroughly cleaned, and can infect someone else if they get into their mouth.

Someone with a C. difficile infection is generally considered to be infectious until at least 48 hours after their symptoms have cleared up.

How to stop C. difficile spreading

C. difficile infections can be passed on very easily. You can reduce your risk of picking it up or spreading it by practising good hygiene, both at home and in healthcare settings.

The following measures can help: