Countering the C. diff Threat for the Medical Consumer

If CSI were set in your body, not in New York or Miami, Clostridium difficile, or C. diff for short, would be considered a criminal in need of watching. While most of the millions of different kinds of bacteria that are found in the human intestine are harmless, C. diff produces toxins that can make you sick. Fortunately, it is usually held in check by your good bacteria.

In 2002, however, a much more dangerous, drug-resistant strain of C. diff began appearing in hospitals in the U.S. and Canada. This variety is more likely to cause severe diarrhea and nausea and can sometimes lead to death. In hospitals, C. diff can contaminate every surface, including bedrails, bed tables, staff uniforms, faucets, and call buttons. When patients touch these surfaces and then pick up food with their hands, they ingest the germ. Patients who are taking antibiotics are particularly vulnerable, because these drugs kill off the beneficial bacteria that normally control C. diff.

A just-released study conducted by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology found that one in every hundred hospital patients develops a C. diff infection. A separate study by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that the hospital death rate for patients with C. diff was 9.5 percent.

C. diff spores can live on hard surfaces for weeks or months, and the hardy germ resists every anticontaminant except bleach, which is your first line of defense. Thorough washing with soap and water is your second. However, it's important to note that the alcohol-based hand gels often found in hospital rooms are completely ineffective in preventing the spread of C. diff.

If your loved one is hospitalized, you should take the following precautions to minimize the chances of infection:

  • Make sure that people who see your loved one—doctors and nurses as well as visitors—wash their hands properly before they enter the room.
  • Make sure you and your loved one clean your hands thoroughly before eating. Do not touch your hands to your lips and do not place your food or utensils on any surface except your plate.
  • Bring wipes containing bleach to the hospital and clean items around your loved one's bed.
  • Wash the clothes you and your loved one wore to the hospital separately and use some bleach. Regular laundry detergents do not kill C. diff.

The good news is that many hospitals have instituted programs to control the spread of C. diff. Before scheduling elective surgery for your loved one, find out what the hospital is doing to control this bacterial threat.