Clostridium Difficile Colitis (Antibiotic-Associated Colitis, C. difficile Colitis, C. diff, C diff,)

  • Medical Author:
    Dennis Lee, MD

    Dr. Lee was born in Shanghai, China, and received his college and medical training in the United States. He is fluent in English and three Chinese dialects. He graduated with chemistry departmental honors from Harvey Mudd College. He was appointed president of AOA society at UCLA School of Medicine. He underwent internal medicine residency and gastroenterology fellowship training at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

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Quick GuideBacterial Infections 101: Types, Symptoms, and Treatments

Bacterial Infections 101: Types, Symptoms, and Treatments

How does Clostridium difficile cause colitis?

C. difficile spores lie dormant inside the colon until a person takes an antibiotic. The antibiotic disrupts the other bacteria that normally are living in the colon and preventing C. difficile from transforming into its active, disease-causing bacterial form. As a result, C. difficile transforms into its infectious form and then produces toxins (chemicals) that inflame and damage the colon. The inflammation results in an influx of white blood cells to the colon. The severity of the colitis can vary. In the more severe cases, the toxins kill the tissue of the inner lining of the colon, and the tissue falls off. The tissue that falls off is mixed with white blood cells (pus) and gives the appearance of a white, membranous patch covering the inner lining of the colon. This severe form of C. difficile colitis is called pseudomembranous colitis because the patches appear like membranes, but they are not true membranes.

Not everybody infected with C. difficile develops colitis. Many infants and young children, and even some adults, are carriers (they are infected but have no symptoms) of C. difficile. C. difficile does not cause colitis in these people probably because;

  1. the bacteria stay in the colon as non-active spores, and
  2. the individuals have developed antibodies that protect them against the C. difficile toxins.

What are the symptoms of Clostridium difficile colitis?

Patients with mild C. difficile colitis may have:

  • a low-grade fever,
  • mild diarrhea (5-10 watery stools a day),
  • mild abdominal cramps and tenderness.

Patients with severe C. difficile colitis may have:

  • a high fever of 102 F to 104 F (39 C to 40 C),
  • severe diarrhea (more than 10 watery stools a day) with blood, and
  • severe abdominal pain and tenderness.

Severe diarrhea also can lead to dehydration and disturbances in the electrolytes (minerals) in the body. Rarely, severe colitis can lead to life-threatening complications such as toxic megacolon (markedly dilated colon), peritonitis (inflammation of the lining of the abdominal), and perforation of the colon.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/13/2015

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