C. diff Infection in the Elderly

Clostridium difficile, commonly referred to as C. difficile or C. diff, is a bacterial infection of the intestines. C. diff is a germ that is found in air, soil, water, and animal feces. It is often acquired after a stay in the hospital. Spores can live for a long time and may be found on items common in a hospital setting like bed linens, bed rails, bathroom fixtures, and medical equipment. People can unknowingly pick up these germs from contaminated surfaces or when they are spread in a hospital from the hands of healthcare workers.

Risk Factors

People 65 and older who have had a recent hospital stay are at the greatest risk of contracting C. diff. In fact, studies estimate that two out of three C. diff infections from hospital exposure happen in this age group. Symptoms usually show up within several days after leaving the hospital but can occur up to 2 – 3 months after discharge. In addition, people on antibiotics are 7-10 times more likely to get C. diff while on the medication and up to 3 months after going off the drug. This is because antibiotics destroy the good germs which can fight C. diff.

Other risk factors include:

  • Decreased immune system from ongoing chronic illnesses;
  • Recurrent use of antibiotics;
  • Living in a long-term care facility;
  • Frequent hospitalizations–especially in the intensive care unit;
  • Women 65 and older;
  • Taking medicine for heartburn.



People with a mild to moderate cases experience watery diarrhea 3 or more times a day for 2 days along with mild cramping and tenderness in the stomach. Symptoms in more severe C. diff infections can include:

  • Several episodes of watery diarrhea throughout the day and night;
  • Severe pain and cramping in the stomach;
  • Fever;
  • Rapid heart rate;
  • Blood or pus in stool;
  • Nausea;
  • Dehydration;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Weight loss.


If you have any of the above symptoms and have recently been in the hospital or taken antibiotics see you physician as soon as possible. In some cases, C. diff can progress quickly and lead to severe dehydation, kidney failure, bowel performation, and death.



Most hospitals, long-term care facilities, and other healthcare settings have put standards and practices in place to combat the growing threat of C. diff to the population. Healthcare providers regularly clean hands with soap and water, or hand sanitizer before caring for every patient. And hospital workers routinely clean each and every room and surface with commercial grade disinfectants. Other preventive measures include:

  • Providing a more thorough cleaning of hospital rooms and equipment for patients with C. diff.;
  • Placing C. diff patients in a single room;
  • Having healthcare providers wear gloves and a gown over clothing when caring for patients with a known infection;
  • Requiring visitors to wear a gown and gloves.


You can help prevent getting C. diff by always making sure that all health care providers you come in contact with wash their hands. Speak up if you notice a healthcare worker did not wash their hands. They are often running between patient rooms and may forget but will appreciate the reminder. Furthermore, make sure to clean your own hands throughout the day, especially after using the bathroom and always before eating. Use a tissue to touch your face with your hands. Finally, only take antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor.



Discontinuing a current course of antibiotics will sometimes clear up a case of C. diff infection. This should only be done under the direction of your physician. In some instances, however, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the infection. C. diff can return in about 20 percent of patients. Unfortunately, some people can experience repeated bouts.  Fecal transplants from the  colon of a healthy person have been shown to have good success in treating patients with recurrent cases. In severe cases, patients may need surgery to remove the infected part of the colon.





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