C. difficile bacteria are found throughout the environment — in soil, air, water, human and animal feces, and food products, such as processed meats. A small number of healthy people naturally carry the bacteria in their large intestine and don’t have ill effects from the infection.
C. difficile infection is most commonly associated with health care and recent antibiotic use, occurring in hospitals and other health care facilities where a much higher percentage of people carry the bacteria. However, studies show increasing rates of community-associated C. difficile infection, which occurs among populations traditionally not considered high risk, such as children and people without a history of antibiotic use or recent hospitalization.
Spores from C. difficile bacteria are passed in feces and spread to food, surfaces and objects when people who are infected don’t wash their hands thoroughly. These spores can persist in a room for weeks or months. If you touch a surface contaminated with C. difficile spores, you may then unknowingly swallow the bacteria.
Your intestines contain about 100 trillion bacterial cells and up to 2,000 different kinds of bacteria, many of which help protect your body from infection. When you take an antibiotic to treat an infection, these drugs tend to destroy some of the normal, helpful bacteria in addition to the bacteria causing the infection. Without enough healthy bacteria to keep it in check, C. difficile can quickly grow out of control. The antibiotics that most often lead to C. difficile infections include fluoroquinolones, cephalosporins, penicillins and clindamycin.
Once established, C. difficile can produce toxins that attack the lining of the intestine. The toxins destroy cells and produce patches (plaques) of inflammatory cells and decaying cellular debris inside the colon and cause watery diarrhea.