Clostridium Difficile (c. difficile) is a bacterial infection which affects the digestive system. The common symptoms are diarrhoea, a fever and painful abdominal cramps. More severe cases can cause your colon to become inflamed which can result in dehydration, feeling sick, loss of appetite and weight loss.

How do you catch it?

The spores of the c. difficile bacteria are passed out of the human body in faeces and can last on objects/surfaces for weeks and even months. If a contaminated object is touched and the spores get into the body via the mouth or nose then c. difficile can be contracted. The spores can also spread through the air. The only way to get rid of the bacteria is by very thorough cleaning.

Who is at risk?

C. difficile bacteria do not usually cause any problems for healthy adults and children. This is because the “good” bacteria in the colon helps to keep the bacteria under control. However antibiotics can interfere with the balance of bacteria in the body and this can therefore make patients on a course of drugs susceptible to developing a c. difficile infection. The categories of people most at risk of suffering a c. difficile infection are:-

  • Patients who have been treated with antibiotics
  • Patients who have had a long stay in hospital
  • People over the age of 65
  • Anyone with a serious underlying illness/condition
  • Anyone who has a weakened immune condition
  • People who have had a number of enemas or digestive surgery.

What is the treatment?

The first step is to withdraw the treatment that is causing the infection such as the antibiotics. If it is a severe infection specific antibiotics can be used.

Usually a good response is achieved with symptoms clearing up within 7 to 10 days. However relapses are common and sometimes people will suffer a few relapses. Each relapse will need to be treated. In very severe cases sometimes it is necessary to remove some of the bowel and the condition can be fatal.

How can the spread be prevented?

There is nothing difficult about preventing the spread of c. difficile. It is all about good hygiene such as washing hands thoroughly and cleaning surfaces with bleach. In a healthcare setting this does not just apply to clinicians and other staff but also to patients and visitors.

Unfortunately alcohol hand gel is not effective against c. difficile spores, good old fashioned soap and water is the best method of keeping hands clean.

What preventative measures should be put in place following a positive diagnosis?

If possible, to protect other patients, anyone who has been diagnosed with a c. difficile infection should be isolated to a room with its own toilet and washing facilities to try to contain the spread. The staff who are caring for the patient should use disposable gloves and aprons as should visitors. Hand washing is essential as well as keeping toilets, surfaces and bedding clean. All hospitals should have infection control measures and policies in place along with infection control nurses and isolation rooms to enable them to prevent the spread of the infection.

If I contract c. difficile does that mean there is someone to blame?

No. Anyone in hospital is a risk of being in hospital. Therefore a diagnosis of a c. difficile infection during or following a stay in hospital does not mean that you have suffered negligent treatment.

If there is an outbreak of a particular infection at one hospital then this may be an indicator that they are not following their infection control policies or that hygiene is slipping. In those circumstances requests can be made for documents to show whether or not there has been a systemic failure.

What should I do if think that I have contracted a c. difficile infection because the hospital was at fault?

In the first instance the most important thing is to get treatment. When you are well you should write a letter of complaint to the Trust. In this letter you should ask for details of the numbers of c. difficile infections they have had in the past year and for a copy of their infection control measures and policies.

If, when you have the documents you think the hospital might be at fault then you should contact a solicitor as soon as possible to discuss the possibility of making a claim.

In the United Kingdom, there is a standard limit of three years in which a personal injury claim for compensation must be made. If legal proceedings are not started in court within three years, the case is then time-barred or statute barred as it is sometimes known.