Think of the trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi as a community (called your microbiome) that works together to keep your body functioning well. Most of these organisms are beneficial, with specific jobs to do, such as helping your body digest food and distribute nutrients. A healthy person’s microbiome also contains a small number of bacterium that aren’t so friendly.
When your microbiome is in a state of balance, the good guys keep the bad ones under control. If the balance is disrupted—either because the helpful bacteria are eradicated (as can happen when you take antibiotics) or because the harmful community overgrows—your health can suffer. In recent years, one type of bacterium, called Clostridium difficile (C. diff), is presenting particularly difficult challenges, because it causes one of the most common health care-associated infections in the United States. What’s more, about 20% of patients have recurrent infections.
A C. diff infection causes diarrhea, which can range from mild to severe, and in rare cases, can lead to serious complications. The infection most often enters the body after someone touches a surface contaminated with feces from a person infected with C. diff and then touches his or her mouth.
Even if C. diff enters your body, in most cases, it doesn’t make you sick. But recent antibiotic use and a stay in a hospital or long-term care facility can make you more susceptible to becoming infected. There are several reasons why this is so. In such settings, many patients are taking antibiotics, and they are often older (another risk factor) and sicker (yet another—it can do more damage in someone whose immune system is already suppressed and is therefore less able to fight it off). Also, C. diff is resistant to some disinfectants and health care workers tend to many patients, one after the next, so the likelihood of transmission is high as well.