Anatomy of a hospital infection

Clostridium difficile is a bacterium that can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain and more severe symptoms. In the past few years, states have been reporting an upsurge in C. difficile infections with more severe cases and more deaths.

AT RISK: At least 80 percent of cases occur in health care facilities. Most at risk are people who have been treated with antibiotics, the elderly, or those who have had intestinal tract surgery, colon problems or a weakened immune system.

CAUSES: C. difficile bacteria are contained in human feces and can spread via the hands of health care workers to uninfected patients. Its spores can live for months on bathroom fixtures, bed linens and bed rails.

SYMPTOMS: Watery diarrhea occurring 10 to 15 times a day, abdominal pain and cramping, low-grade fever, nausea, blood or pus in the stool, dehydration, loss of appetite, weight loss.  Severe cases can result in toxic megacolon and possible colon rupture, which can be fatal.

TREATMENT: Halting antibiotics that may have triggered the infection, choosing new antibiotics that target C. difficile. In severe cases, part or all of the colon may be removed.

PREVENTION: Health care workers and visitors should wash hands using soap and warm water. Anyone entering a room with an infected patient should wear disposable gloves and gown. All surfaces should be washed with bleach-based products. Antibiotics should be used sparingly and for short periods.

Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mayo Clinic, American Academy of Family Physicians.

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