A new or suspected diagnosis of Clostridium difficile infection (CDI) can be frightening and overwhelming. Patients suffering from recurrent CDI often experience frustration, difficulty working and engaging with family and friends, and an array of social and emotional issues.

The symptoms and impact of CDI can vary greatly in their severity – from inconvenient to potentially life threatening – depending on your overall health and the particular bacterial strain.  For young, otherwise healthy people, CDI is rarely life threatening, though it can be.

For infants, immunosuppressed and elderly people, even a mild strain of C. diff can turn life threatening due to dehydration, malnutrition, toxic megacolon and, in the worst cases, sepsis.

With frequent, severe diarrhea as its primary symptom, many people find living with CDI to be embarrassing, owing primarily to our culture’s taboo around feces. This can lead to feelings of isolation and depression.

This section aims to help you find the answers and information you need, by directing you to the appropriate resources and pages on our website. For the basics of C. diff and CDIs, visit our C. diff 101 page.

Confirming the Diagnosis

If you suspect you or a loved one has CDI, receiving a quick diagnosis and treatment can make all the difference in your outcome. Since CDIs range from virtually symptomless to fulminant pseudomembranous colitis, receiving a quality exam is crucial to diagnosis. Visit our Getting Diagnosed page for details.

CDIs Impact On Your Body

The human gastrointestinal system is home to an enormously diverse and complex array of microorganisms called the “gut microbiota.” In humans, the microbiota contains tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria with more than 3 million genes (150 times more than human genes). One third of our gut microbiota is common to most people, while two thirds are specific to each one of us. In other words, the microbiota in your intestine is like an individual identity card. Between 2-5% of Americans’ microbiota’s contain clostridium difficile without any ill effects. What does C. difficile to do the gut?

Disruption of the gut microbiota, usually though not exclusively through antibiotic use, can cause beneficial bacteria to be eliminated. Because C. diff in its spore form is very hearty, wiping out the good bacteria allows C. diff to reproduce rapidly. As soon as 24 hours after the C. diff begins to multiply, they give off toxins that damage the lining of the colon. The cells of the digestive tract become “leaky”, raising the alarm among nearby immune system cells, and leading to diarrhea. Without treatment, this leads to inflammation of the colon, called pseudomembranous colitis. In some patients, this leads to a severe infection referred to as toxic megacolon, which can be life threatening.

Getting Treatment

  • Treatment for CDI varies greatly depending on the patient’s health and severity of the disease
  • Finding a physician knowledgeable about CDI and up to date on treatment options is key. Visit our Find A Provider page to find one in your state
  • Patients with refractory CDI, for which traditional treatments fail, may want to see if a clinical trial nearby will provide them with additional options. Visit our In Your State page to search for trials in your state
  • You can also download our Treatment Options Fact Sheet

Danger Signs

Patients with severe CDI are at risk for toxic megacolon and sepsis, both life-threatening conditions. Symptoms of toxic megacolon include:

  • Abdominal distension, pain and tenderness
  • High fever
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Paleness (pallor)
  • Mental changes
  • Shock
  • Absence of bowel sounds

Signs of sepsis are similar and include:

  • Shivers, high fever
  • Feeling very cold
  • Extreme pain or general discomfort
  • Pale or discolored skin
  • Sleepy, difficult to rouse, confused
  • Patient states “I feel like I might die” or similar
  • Shortness of breath

If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms, seek treatment immediately. Learn more about sepsis by visiting the Sepsis Alliance.