A potentially deadly, infectious superbug called Clostridium difficile has exploded in growth three-fold over the last decade. C. diff, as it's also called, causes almost half a million illnesses in the United States each year, and 1 in 11 people over age 65 die within a month of being diagnosed with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What is C. difficile? C. difficile infection is a harmful bacterium that produces toxins that attack the lining of the intestine. The toxins destroy cells and produce plaques of inflammatory cells and decaying cellular debris inside the colon.
Common symptoms of C. difficile include:
Diarrhea and dehydration
Loss of appetite
Ulcers or abdominal pain
What causes C. difficile?
Under a magnification of 3006x, this scanning electron microscopic image depicts a large grouping of rod-shaped, Gram-positive Clostridium difficile bacteria. (Photo: CDC/Lois S. Wiggs (PHIL #6260)/Wikimedia Commons)
Most likely, a visit to your doctor or local health center. In fact, 94 percent of the potentially fatal infections are in people who recently received care in facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, physicians' offices, and outpatient surgical centers, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
C. difficile spores are passed through the feces of people who have the toxic bacteria in their gut. Spores can persist in the environment (on hospital beds or railings) and can also be spread through the air or find their way into the food.
Spores that get into the human gut develop into mature bacteria.
Another major cause is taking antibiotics, which can kill millions of beneficial micro-organisms in the gut. Colitis caused by Clostridium difficile is a major complication of prescribing antibiotics, according to research conducted by Baylor University.
Antibiotics cause a reduction in bacteria that normally reside in the colon. If an antibiotic-treated patient ingests C. difficile bacteria, this organism may proliferate in the colon because it's resistant to most antibiotics and because it doesn't have to compete with the normal bacteria for nutrients, the paper by Baylor researchers concludes.
How is C. diff treated?
Ironically, in some cases, it's treated by administering certain antibiotics that target the C. difficile colony in the gut.
A more recent and progressive form of treatment involves taking a stool sample from a healthy individual and transplanting it into the colon of the patient. C. difficile can be treated in the vast majority of patients through a fecal transplantation procedure via colonoscopy, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. However, the FDA has issued warnings about this procedure because of the serious infections that have been linked to it.
In extreme cases, surgery is required to remove the infected part of the intestine.
Who is at risk?
Usually, elderly people who have taken several courses of antibiotics and have stayed for several stints in the hospital.
But it's not just infected people who carry C. difficile. One British medical online forum claims that three in 100 adults and as many as 70 percent of healthy babies are carriers of C. difficile.
Why don't more people get sick? Carriers of C. difficile have a healthy micro-organism portfolio in their gut. Good bacteria neutralize harmful bacteria in a healthy individual.
Are antibiotics to blame for the rise of C. diff?
Alternative medicine practitioners have been cautioning against the wanton use of antibiotics for years. Some in the traditional medical community have also blamed antibiotics for the rise in superbugs like C. difficile.
"This micro-organism ecosystem we have in our guts needs to be taken seriously and treated like it's a delicate rain forest," says Dr. Steven Lamm, author of the new book, "No Guts, No Glory: Gut Solution — the Core of Your Total Wellness."
"We have 100 trillion bacteria in our body. That's ten times more than the amount of cells we have in our whole body. The medical establishment needs to be careful in overprescribing antibiotics because the beneficial bacteria are useful in so many ways, such as detoxifying and sending signals to our brain for mood and weight regulation," adds Lamm.
How should I prevent contracting it?
Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. However, washing with anti-bacterial soap or sanitizer can have the opposite effect by reducing the good bacteria in your gut and making you more susceptible to infections.
While you're at it, watch your diet. In a study published in Nature Genetics, researchers say C. diff is evolving into two species, including one that thrives on simple dietary sugars, produces high levels of antibiotic-resistant spores and is adapted for "healthcare-mediated transmission" — creating the perfect storm for a hospital setting where soft, sugary foods are often served to people with less-than-robust immune systems.
Also, don't take antibiotics unless you really need them. Get a second opinion from a medical doctor or a naturopathic doctor. Start taking probiotics if you have taken antibiotics recently.
"I recommend probiotics to my patients who travel out of the country, or have taken antibiotics. Actually, I recommend them to anybody with a pulse," advises Lamm.
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, California.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in April 2012.