An elementary school in Tulsa, Oklahoma recently had a scare when a student was diagnosed with a Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infection, according to Tulsa World. The school spent the weekend disinfecting rooms and bathrooms to try to eliminate any chance of transmission. (The student can’t return until his symptoms clear up, says the school.)

C. diff causes watery diarrhea and is spread by contaminated feces. People taking antibiotics long-term are most likely to develop it.

The school is scrubbing down the premises because C. diff can be transmitted by touching an infected person’s feces and then touching your mouth or any other mucous membrane, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can live on surfaces, such as bathroom fixtures, for “a very long time” according to the CDC.

More than 450,000 Americans are infected with C. diff each year, according to study from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Division of Gastroenterology.

Here’s the lowdown on this nasty intestinal bug.

Related: Stomach Flu Symptoms: Is it a Virus or Something Else?

Symptoms of C. diff

According to the American College of Gastroenterology, C. diff can cause infections ranging "from mild diarrhea to severe colon inflammation that can even be fatal." The group says "Since 2000, there has been a dramatic increase in the number and severity of cases of C. difficile infection."

Symptoms associated with the illness, according to the CDC, are:

  • Watery diarrhea (at least three bowel movements per day for two or more days)
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain/tenderness

Your infection may be severe and you may become dehydrated and need hospitalization if you experience the following symptoms:

  • Watery diarrhea 10 to 15 times a day
  • Severe abdominal cramping and pain
  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Kidney failure
  • Increased white blood cell count

The Mayo Clinic recommends seeking immediate emergency care if you have three or more watery bowel movements a day, symptoms lasting more than 48 hours and if you have a new fever, severe abdominal pain or cramping or blood in your stool.

Some people carry C. diff in their intestines but never become sick. They can still spread the infection, however, notes the Mayo Clinic.

Related: Is Your Poop Trying to Tell You Something?


The American College of Gastroenterology advises that antidiarrheal drugs should never be used for C. diff infections "as slowing down an inflamed colon may result in a severe complication called toxic megacolon."

As soon as you receive a C. diff diagnosis, your doctor will likely advise you to stop taking the antibiotic that caused the infection. A small number of people may see their diarrhea symptoms stop after ceasing the use of the antibiotic, says the CDC.

Treatment for C. diff is another antibiotic for a minimum of 10 days. Another option: a fecal transplant. While not widely available, the CDC notes that transplants of feces from a healthy person seem to be the most effective method to treat this infection, though more information is needed about the long-term safety of this approach.

Up to 20 percent of people with C. diff get sick again, warns the Mayo Clinic. It may be because the initial infection never went away or because you've acquired a different strain of the C. diff bacteria.

You are at higher risk of reoccurrence if:

  • You are older than 65
  • You are taking other antibiotics for a different condition while being treated with antibiotics for the C. diff infection
  • You have a severe underlying medical disorder, such as chronic kidney failure, inflammatory bowel disease or chronic liver disease

Related: Do You Really Need That Antibiotic?

How to prevent it

The Mayo Clinic and CDC offer these tips on how to prevent a C. diff infection:

  • Take antibiotics only as prescribed by your doctor and complete the prescribed course of treatment.
  • Wash your hands before eating and after using the bathroom.
  • Tell your doctor if you’ve been on antibiotics and you develop diarrhea within a few months.
  • If you have diarrhea, try to use a bathroom not used by others, or be sure the bathroom is cleaned well after you use it..
  • Clean all surfaces well with cleaning products that contain bleach. C. diff spores can survive cleaning products that don't contain bleach.

Related: Proper Hand Washing 101: What’s the Best Way to Kill Germs?

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Muriel Vega is a writer with a passion for budget travel and staying safe while abroad. A Georgia State University graduate, she has over 6 years of editorial experience and has written for The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Billfold, among other outlets. In her free time, you can find her baking pies, playing with her two dogs and cat, or planning her next vacation. She spends way too much time on Twitter, one of her favorite social media channels. Her favorite safety tip: Make sure you have all the necessary shots before you go abroad.