C. diff (Clostridium difficile): Symptoms and Treatment (2024)

C. diff is a type of bacteria that can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, and tenderness. It is commonly treated with antibiotics such as fidaxomicin (Dificid) and vancomycin (Firvanq).

C. diff, short for Clostridium difficile, is a form of infectious bacterium. It can cause a range of symptoms but most commonly results in colitis, which is the inflammation of the wall of your colon.

Learn more about what symptoms to look out for, common causes, and how the condition can be treated and prevented.

According to the American College of Gastroenterology, between 4% and 15% of healthy adults have C. diff in their intestines. Up to 70% of infants have C. diff at birth, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Other bacteria that live in the intestines usually keep the amount of C. diff under control. However, in some instances, a C. diff infection can occur. This includes via:

  • Touching an infected object: C. diff is contagious and can pass from person to person. Touching objects, including food and surfaces, that have been in contact with feces (poop) from someone who has C. diff can transmit the bacteria.
  • Taking antibiotics: Antibiotics help fight off bad bacteria. However, the drug doesn’t always know the difference between good and bad germs. This means it may sometimes remove good bacteria that protect our body from infections like C. diff.

The main symptom of a C. diff infection is diarrhea. Other symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain or cramps
  • nausea
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • dehydration
  • blood in stool (in severe cases)

Symptoms of a C. diff infection can range from mild to severe. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends speaking with a doctor as a necessary step if your symptoms do not go away after 2 days.

Get immediate treatment if you have severe abdominal pain or notice blood in your stool.

The C. diff bacterium comes from feces and is contagious. You can develop an infection if you touch a surface that has come in contact with feces (poop) from someone with C. diff and then touch your mouth.

In addition, C. diff spores are resistant to many chemicals used for household cleaning. As a result, they can stick around for a long time.

While anyone can develop a C. diff infection, some people have an increased risk.

Things that can increase your risk include:

  • taking antibiotics, especially a long course of broad-spectrum antibiotics
  • spending a lot of time in hospitals
  • being of older age
  • having gastrointestinal surgery
  • having a weakened immune system
  • having chronic kidney or liver disease
  • taking proton pump inhibitors
  • having had prior C. diff infections

To diagnose a C. diff infection, a doctor typically starts by asking some questions about your symptoms and medical history.

Next, they may order stool testing which involves obtaining a stool sample. They then send the sample to a lab where technicians analyze it, looking for toxins or toxin genes of the C. diff bacterium.

If it comes back positive for these toxins, it typically means you have a C. diff infection.

A C. diff infection is typically treated using antibiotics. However, in some cases, a doctor may also suggest a procedure known as a sigmoidoscopy to confirm the severity of the infection and perform a fecal microbiota transplant.

Here’s a detailed look at treatment options for C. diff include:


C. diff infections require treatment with antibiotics. If you’re already taking an antibiotic for another condition, a doctor may have you stop taking it if possible.

Common antibiotics used to treat C. diff infections include:

  • fidaxomicin (Dificid)
  • metronidazole (Flagyl)
  • vancomycin (Firvanq)

Oral metronidazole is typically less effective. Doctors prescribe it for a non-severe, initial C. diff infection if fidaxomicin or vancomycin are not available.

In most cases, you can take each of these antibiotics orally. However, some infections might require intravenous (IV) antibiotic therapy.

The CDC recommends taking an antibiotic course for at least 10 days to treat a C. diff infection.


A doctor may order a colonoscopy to help determine the severity of the infection.

During this procedure, a long, thin device called a sigmoidoscope is inserted into your colon. This allows a doctor to get a better look at your colon and check for signs of inflammation.

It can also be used to insert stool from a donor to treat the infection if a colonoscopy is not used.

In the case of recurrent C. diff, defined as at least two recurrences after the first episode, a fecal microbiota transplant may be considered a potential treatment option after antibiotic therapy.

In very rare cases, you may need surgery to remove the affected part of your colon.

Treating C. diff at home

In mild cases, you can treat C. diff can at home with antibiotics. As you recover, make sure to drink plenty of fluids. Having diarrhea often leads to dehydration, so it’s important to replenish the fluids you lose.

However, if you experience diarrhea for more than 2 days, it is important to speak with a doctor as soon as possible. This can help avoid severe dehydration, which can be life threatening.

While most C. diff infections don’t cause any long-term problems, more serious infections can lead to complications, such as:

  • Toxic megacolon: Toxic megacolon is a rare condition that causes a grossly enlarged colon. Left untreated, your colon can rupture, which can be fatal.
  • Bowel perforation: Damage from a C. diff infection or toxic megacolon can cause a hole to form in your intestines.
  • Kidney injury: In severe cases of C. diff infection, rapid dehydration can lead to acute kidney injury.

Despite C. diff’s resistance to many cleaning products, there are several things you can do to help prevent developing or transmitting C. diff bacteria.

Follow these tips to help reduce your risk of a C. diff infection:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water: This is especially important after using the bathroom and before eating.
  • Do not take antibiotics unnecessarily: Antibiotics are only effective for bacterial infections. They will not treat a viral infection, such as the flu or common cold.
  • Keep surfaces in high-use areas clean: This includes bathrooms and kitchens.

Does C. diff go away on its own?

A mild C. diff infection that presents no symptoms can go away on its own. However, more severe forms require treatment, such as antibiotics, to prevent complications.

Is it OK to be around someone with C. diff?

It is typically OK to be around someone with C. diff as most healthy adults will not contract the bacterium. However, it is still important to wash your hands frequently and keep surfaces — especially those in the kitchen and bathroom — clean.

What happens if C. diff goes untreated?

If C. diff goes untreated, it may lead to severe dehydration, which can be life threatening. This is why it’s important to speak with a doctor about any symptoms you may be experiencing.

C. diff, short for Clostridium difficile, is a contagious bacterium that can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, and tenderness.

Most C. diff infections respond well to a 10-day course of oral antibiotic treatment. In more severe cases, you may need an IV antibiotic in addition to oral antibiotic therapy.

If you think you have a C. diff infection, it’s important to speak with a doctor as soon as possible to help avoid developing any complications.

C. diff (Clostridium difficile): Symptoms and Treatment (2024)
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