Is C. diff Contagious: What Everyone Should Know

“C. diff” is an increasingly antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria that is causing concern in both hospitals and around communities. It’s gaining attention as even more problematic than the very dangerous strain of MRSA bacteria.  C. diff causes infections in the colon or large intestine called C. diff colitis.  The colon or the large intestine is responsible for the reabsorption of water and salts from solid wastes before they are eliminated from the body. This part of the gut is aided by a normal flora of bacteria. This normal flora ferments the unabsorbed material and also guards the colon from opportunistic bacteria like C. diff.

What is C. diff and what are the symptoms?
C. diff, short for Clostridium difficle, is a type of bacteria that causes swelling of the colon, also know as C. diff colitis. A person experiencing C. diff colitis may suffer from diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever because of the intestinal inflammation. In severe cases, C. diff can cause watery diarrhea 10 to 15 times a day, severe, abdominal cramping and pain, fever, blood or pus in the stool, nausea, dehydration, loss of appetite, and weight loss. If not treated, this may lead to colon perforation, septicaemia or blood poisoning, peritonitis or the infection of the lining of the abdomen and, in worst cases, death.

Where does C. diff come from?
So where do you contract these bacteria? The intestine contains good bacteria which help in the fermentation of the solid waste and production of vitamins. Good bacteria help maintain a strong immune system. However, when you take in antibiotics, it kills bacteria even the good bacteria in your gut. This disrupts the normal ecology of the colon and thus can give way to the growth or overgrowth of C. diff.

But where does C. diff comes from? Do we harbour these bacteria inside? Or do we get it from our environment? Is C. diff contagious or are they naturally occurring in our system? Some health care professionals think that C. diff is one of the natural bacteria in our colon that have just overgrown because of the antibiotic therapy. But this may not be the case. According to some studies, only 5 % of the population is colonized by C. diff. However, the subjects of the studies may have been infected temporarily at that time. So it’s still unclear if C. diff is part of a natural bacteria flora for our digestive system.

Is C. diff contagious?
If we don’t naturally have C. diff in our gut, how do we get this infection? C. diff has two forms, the infectious active C. diff that cannot survive in an environment for a long period of time and a non-active, non-infectious form that can survive in the environment for a long period of time. This non-infectious form of the bacteria is called “spore”. These spores remain non-infectious but if and when they reach the gut they can then grow into the infectious form of bacteria.  Spores can be found almost anywhere: on bedpans, furniture, toilet seats, linens, telephones, stethoscopes, keyboards, fingernails, rings (jewelry), floors, infants’ rooms, and diaper pails. The spores get on objects like these from contact with feces of those who are infected (just think not washing your hands after using the bathroom). So, yes, it is contagious. Research also shows that the airborne dissemination of C. difficile occurs commonly but sporadically.

Is C. diff contagious from airborne exposure?
If spores are airborne, can we contract this infection by inhaling it?  Is C. diff contagious by air? There are two things that need to happen to be infected by C. diff. First, you have to ingest the C. diff spores. Second, the ecological balance of the normal bacteria living in your colon needs to be disturbed in order for C. diff to start an infection. There is no evidence that C. diff can be contracted by inhaling. But very importantly, because these bacteria can travel through the air, it can be abundantly found in floors and surfaces inside the room of an infected person. When these surfaces are touched and these spores are ingested, C. diff colitis can occur.

Thus, proper hand washing with and room sanitation in hospitals or the room of the infected person is a must to prevent the spread of these bacteria. Always wash your hands before touching your mouth and after using the bathroom (especially if you are infected). The best protective measures are often bolstering your own natural defenses against superbug infections like C. diff.  Avoiding antibiotics when at all possible and maintaining proper digestive system health can also help prevent these serious and sometimes deadly infections.

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