What’s C. diff and why should you care? Clostridium difficile, commonly referred to as C. diff, is one tough bacterial infection. Is C. diff dangerous for patients? Unfortunately, it is common and can be deadly.
How many people are impacted?
It makes over 500,000 Americans sick every year, killing 29,000 each year. Over 94% of C. diff infections occur in hospitals.
How do people get it?
Although it is yucky to think about, or even write about, fecal matter can contain C. diff and is easily spread from person to person. C. diff can live for weeks on a range of surfaces, including door knobs and bed rails, and can only be killed with a strong germ-killing agent, like bleach.
How can hospitals control the problem?
The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has created a list of tasks to combat this dangerous bug, including detailed protocols for hand hygiene and room cleaning, antibiotic prescribing, and recommendations for staffing levels. It’s important to note that the biggest risk factor for C. diff infections is antibiotic misuse.
Unfortunately the CDC has no authority to enforce these guidelines, leaving it up to hospital administration.
Are hospitals doing a good job controlling C. diff?
Although C. diff rates vary among hospitals, many are not doing a good job, including some major teaching hospitals.
To reduce the incidence of infections, hospitals must adopt programs to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics. Unfortunately, the CDC reports that only 39% of hospitals have antibiotic stewardship programs in place.
To prevent the spread of the germ, proper hand hygiene among medical staff must be practiced. As hard as it is to believe, many doctors and other staff members are not washing their hands regularly. A 2014 study found that less than 1/3 of healthcare workers in an ICU (intensive care unit) always washed their hands. Why aren’t they washing their hands frequently enough? It’s likely a combination of forgetfulness and apathy.
How is your hospital doing?
Consumer Reports has published a list of the lowest rated teaching hospitals in the US, as well as a list of the lowest rated hospitals.
The Leapfrog Group rates hospitals on safety measures, including how well they do on 5 infection rates (including C. diff), as well as for antibiotic stewardship programs.
What can you do?
- Ask your hospital, before admission if possible, what programs they have in place to reduce C. diff infections.
- Are they checking stool samples of all patients with diarrhea?
- What are their cleaning protocols?
- What are their hand hygiene protocols?
- Are C. diff patients kept in single rooms?
- Bring your own bleach-containing wipes and clean all surfaces the patient will touch, including the bed rails, door knobs, tray tables, faucet handles, etc. Do this throughout your stay, as medical staff can carry the infection from one room/patient to another.
- Ask all medical professionals to wash their hands with soap and put on gloves, if you don’t personally see them do so. If they say they washed their hands in the hall before entering, ask them to do it again. It’s possible for germs to live on doorknobs, so doctors should wash their hands after entering the room. Alcohol based hand sanitizers will not kill C. diff; you must wash hands for 40-60 seconds with soap. Do not be shy about asking – your life may depend on it!
- Before taking antibiotics, ask your doctor if you really need them. And take them exactly as prescribed – do not stop taking them without your doctor’s permission.
- Before taking heartburn reducing medications, ask your doctor if you need the medication or if the doctor is prescribing them as a precaution. These medications can increase your risk of getting a C. diff infection.
For more information on hospital infections and germs, read these posts:
- How Can Patients Protect Themselves from Hospital Infections?
- Germs in Hospitals and Doctor Offices – Watch Out!
- Why is Hand Washing in Healthcare So Important? What You Need to Do to Stay Safe.
- Why is Sepsis so Dangerous?
- Protect Yourself from Superbugs.