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Simple Steps to Keep the Deadly C. Diff Infection at Bay

The contagious bacterial infection can be more serious for older adults


When you were a child, did you worry about monsters hiding under your bed or lurking behind your closet door? It turns out one monster — clostridium difficile, or C. diff — may actually be closer at hand, at least in hospitals and nursing homes.

Transmitted via fecal matter, the C. diff bacterial infection can cause severe diarrhea, nausea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain, kidney failure and even death. Older adults are more vulnerable to it because of naturally weaker immune systems, more likelihood of underlying health issues and more time spent in health care settings.

C. diff is resistant to some antibiotics, but there are some shown to work against it. In serious and recurrent C. diff cases, patients may undergo a fecal transplant or surgery to remove a portion of the colon.

C. diff spores adhere to every imaginable surface, including toilet seats, faucet handles, doorknobs, linens, bedrails, nurse call buttons, chair arms, ceiling vents and even floors. A 2017 study in the United Kingdom detected it in floor corners in 86 percent of hospital rooms that had undergone routine cleaning.

Since its spores resist standard cleaning methods and alcohol-based hand wipes, C. diff is tough to eradicate. “We know those spores can last nine months or more in a room,” says Dr. Kate Mullane, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Chicago Medicine. “It takes a high concentration of bleach to kill the spores: a cup of bleach in a gallon of water.”

And killing the spores is critically important because C. diff itself is a killer. The most common microbial cause of health care-associated infections in the United States today, it causes nearly half a million infections and 15,000 deaths annually — almost as many deaths as drunk driving and HIV/AIDS combined,  according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Eighty percent of C. diff deaths occur among people 65 and older, and one in 11 patients in that age group dies within 30 days of diagnosis.

A two-pronged approach can keep this microscopic, but deadly killer, at bay. Prong one is antibiotic stewardship; prong two is infection control.

Antibiotic Stewardship

You’ve doubtless heard the world uses far too many antibiotics, wasting money and contributing to the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance. The Pew Charitable Trusts reported that 30 percent of outpatient antibiotic prescriptions in the U.S. are unnecessary (antibiotics prescribed for a viral infection, for example).

Doctors are getting more judicious in their use of antibiotics, but Mullane says patients should still talk with their doctors about the drugs they’re prescribing. If you can avoid antibiotics, or at least broad-spectrum antibiotics, you will be less vulnerable to C. diff. This is because, along with the bad bacteria the drugs are after, antibiotics also kill much of the good bacteria in our intestines. This leaves C. diff an opportunity to overwhelm the gut and cause illness.

C. Diff Infection Control

Given C. diff’s persistence in health care environments, it’s also important to prevent transmission between patients, health care workers and visitors — including people who aren’t symptomatic.

“We know at any one time, about 5 percent of the population is colonized with C. diff,” Mullane says. “They may not be sick with it, but they’re at least carrying it.”

The easiest way to stop transmission is with proper handwashing, according to Anna Barker., a researcher in the medical scientist training program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Even with hospital-grade hand sanitizer, which in many cases is pretty similar to what you would buy out in the community, you do still need to use soap and water,” she says.

“It’s not only the soap and water (that gets rid of the germs), it’s the friction and having your hands under the tap water, which you just don’t get when you use (hand sanitizer) gel,” Barker says. A good rule of thumb to make sure you get rid of the germs: Wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday to You.

But hand hygiene is just the beginning. In the April 2018 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, Barker and two colleagues reported their research on the effectiveness of nine discrete C. diff hospital interventions, including everything from patient hand hygiene to terminal cleaning (deep cleaning of a room after a patient is discharged).

Using computer models, Barker and her colleagues found that daily room cleaning with a sporicidal cleaner plus screening for C. diff at the time of admission reduces hospital-associated infections by roughly 82 percent and asymptomatic colonization by about 91 percent.

“When hospitals try to combat their C. diff rates, they’ll end up doing lots of things at once,” Barker says. “This paper showed you can get a considerable reduction in C. diff with only those two interventions.”

What Patients Can Do

While patients don’t have much control over infection-control practices in a hospital or clinic, they can take two concrete actions.

The first is to ask health care providers if they’ve remembered to wash their hands.

“That’s easier said than done given everything we know about power dynamics and the patient-doctor relationship, but I think that really has a potential to make a big impact,” Barker says.

The other action, perhaps surprisingly, is to reduce the clutter in hospital patient rooms.

“One of the things we hear from the cleaning staff is that it’s very difficult to clean a patient’s room effectively if there are newspapers everywhere or books or food or other items throughout the room,” Barker says. “They can’t, at least at our institution, move the patient’s things for them.”

While decluttering your hospital room may not be quite as simple as switching on the lights to banish an under-bed monster, it can go a long way toward keeping you safe from C. diff.

By Mark Ray
Mark Ray is a freelance writer who has written for Scouting, Eagles’ Call, Presbyterians Today, Kentucky Homes & Gardens and other publications. He has also written, edited and/or contributed to a dozen books for the Boy Scouts and the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches.

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