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Clostridium Difficile Colitis Treatment & Management

  • Author: Faten N Aberra, MD; Chief Editor: BS Anand, MD  more...
Updated: Oct 13, 2015

Approach Considerations

The decision to treat C difficile infection (CDI) and the type of therapy administered depend on the severity of infection, as well as the local epidemiology and type of C difficile strains present. Except for perioperative prophylaxis, it is recommended that the use of cephalosporin and clindamycin be restricted for infection prevention.[5] No treatment is necessary for asymptomatic carriers.

In patients with severe or complicated CDI, oral vancomycin is recommended as first-line therapy due to faster symptom resolution and fewer treatment failures than when metronidazole is used.

European Society of Clinical Microbiology guidelines

In 2013, The European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection released updated guidelines for the treatment of CDI, which include antibiotic treatment for all but very mild cases. Recommendations include the following[39, 40] :

  • For patients with nonepidemic, nonsevere CDI clearly induced by antibiotic use, with no signs of severe colitis, it may be acceptable to stop antibiotic treatment and observe the clinical response for 48 hours
  • Antibiotic treatment is recommended for all except very mild cases actually triggered by antibiotic use; suitable treatments include metronidazole, vancomycin, and fidaxomicin
  • For mild/moderate disease, oral metronidazole (500 mg 3 times daily for 10 days) is recommended as initial treatment
  • In patients for whom oral treatment is inappropriate, fidaxomicin may be used; specific indications include first-line treatment in patients with recurrence or at risk for recurrence
  • For patients with severe CDI, suitable antibiotic regimens include vancomycin (125 mg 4 times daily for 10 days; may be increased to 500 mg 4 times daily) or fidaxomicin (200 mg twice daily for 10 days)
  • Use of fidaxomicin is not supported in life-threatening CDI
  • Use of oral metronidazole in severe or life-threatening CDI is discouraged
  • Fecal transplantation is recommended for multiple recurrent CDI
  • For patients with colonic perforation and/or systemic inflammation and deteriorating clinical condition despite antibiotic treatment, total abdominal colectomy or diverting loop ileostomy combined with colonic lavage is recommended
  • Additional management measures include discontinuing unnecessary antimicrobial therapy, adequate replacement of fluids and electrolytes, avoiding antimotility medications, and reviewing the use of proton pump inhibitors

CDC promotes improving inpatient antibiotic prescribing to reduce drug resistance and increase patient safety

In a 2014 CDC analysis of data regarding antibiotic prescribing in hospitalized patients, Fridkin and colleagues estimated that a 30% reduction in the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics would result in a 26% reduction in C difficile infections (CDIs).[41, 42]  In addition, improvement in physician antibiotic prescribing habits from overuse and incorrect use would also help to reduce antibiotic resistance.

The authors recommended the following measures[42] :

  • Promptly initiate antibiotics for a presumed infection, but first obtain any recommended cultures.
  • Document and specify the drug's indication, dose, and expected duration of use in the patient's medical chart.
  • Reassess the patient within 48 hours based on test results and patient examination; adjust the antibiotic regimen (dose, duration) and/or the agent, or end the antibiotic treatment, as needed.

Surgical intervention

Patients with fulminant colitis and toxic megacolon may require operative intervention, such as colectomy with preservation of the rectum. These patients’ serum lactate levels and peripheral leukocyte counts may aid in the decision to operate; there is a significant risk for perioperative mortality with elevated serum lactate levels (5 mmol/L) and leukocytosis (50,000 cells/µL).[5]

For more information, see the Medscape Reference articles Toxic Megacolon and Pseudomembranous Colitis Surgery.


In patients with complicated CDI, a gastroenterologic consultation may be useful for consideration of a colonoscopic evaluation. Surgical consultation is recommended in patients with suspected fulminant colitis, toxic megacolon, or peritonitis.


Pharmacologic Management

Cessation of the causative antibiotic is essential when possible, as this may affect the risk of recurrence of infection with C difficile.[5] Avoid antidiarrheal agents (eg, diphenoxylate with atropine); they have been reported to increase the duration and severity of symptoms.

Mild to moderate infection

Discontinuing antibiotic therapy may be the only treatment necessary for those with mild antibiotic-associated diarrhea without fever, abdominal pain, or leukocytosis. This conservative approach allows for reconstitution of the normal colonic microflora and markedly reduces the risk of relapse. If ongoing antibiotic therapy is necessary, a treatment can be chosen that is less frequently associated with C difficile infection (CDI), such as intravenous aminoglycosides, sulfonamides, macrolides, tetracycline, or vancomycin.

Patients with mild to moderate diarrhea or colitis, as defined by the absence of leukocytosis, acute kidney injury, fever, sepsis, or megacolon, should receive antibiotic therapy with oral metronidazole or oral vancomycin (in those who are intolerant to metronidazole) for 10-14 days. The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) and the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) indicate that metronidazole (500 mg PO TID for 10-14 days) is the drug of choice in these patients.[5]

In a retrospective study of 300 patients, a low-dose regimen of oral vancomycin (< 500 mg/day) was as effective as a high-dose regimen (>500 mg/day) for the treatment of C difficile infections. Clinical improvement rates for the low- and high-dose regimens were 85% and 86%, respectively, at 72 hours and 93% and 96%, respectively, at the end of therapy/hospital discharge. Patients on the low vancomycin dose had lower in-hospital mortality rates (15% versus 23%) but higher C difficile –related hospital readmission rates (12% vs 5%).[43]

Severe or severe-complicated infection

In patients with suspected severe or complicated CDI, initiate early empirical therapy while the stool tests are pending.[5] Oral vancomycin (125 mg PO QID for 10-14 days)[5] is recommended as first-line therapy in these cases due to faster symptom resolution and fewer treatment failures than when metronidazole is used. Vancomycin is not absorbed and acts directly at the infection site. Symptomatic improvement can be expected within 2-3 days.

Patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) represent a unique population in whom treatment with vancomycin is recommended regardless of disease severity, owing to the high rate of recurrence of CDI in this population, as well as the association between CDI and adverse health outcomes, such as surgery and mortality.

In fulminant cases, combined therapy with intravenous metronidazole and vancomycin (PO or PR) is the treatment of choice.[5] Intravenous vancomycin is ineffective and should not be used for C difficile. The SHEA and IDSA recommend intravenous metronidazole 500 mg every 8 hours with oral vancomycin 500 mg 4 times per day (and/or 500 mg PR q6h in 100 mL normal saline as a retention enema).[5]


Relapse is generally common, occurring in up to 20-27% of cases. Relapse typically occurs 3 days to 3 weeks after treatment is discontinued. Possible reasons for relapse include ongoing risk factors such as antibiotic exposure, failure to eradicate the organism from the colon, and reinfection from the environment.

In general, management of the first recurrence of CDI is the same as that for the initial episode, including stratification according to disease severity.[5] However, although metronidazole can be used for the first recurrence of CDI (if it is not severe), the drug should not be used for subsequent recurrences or for long-term, chronic therapy (risk of cumulative neurotoxicity). Rather, a second or later recurrences should be managed with vancomycin therapy using a tapered and/or pulse regimen.[5]

The SHEA and IDSA have made no recommendations for preventing recurrent CDI in patients with an underlying infection requiring continued antimicrobial management.[5]


Probiotics are not recommended for the treatment of active CDI owing to limited data supporting their benefits and a potential risk for septicemia.[5] However, a meta-analysis that evaluated 34 studies and 4138 patients supported earlier studies indicating that probiotics can prevent the diarrhea that is associated with antibiotic use.[44]


Fecal Microbiota Transplantation

Fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is a novel therapy that involves the transfer of stool from a healthy donor to a patient with C difficile infection (CDI) in order to reconstitute the normal colonic microbial flora. FMT has been reported to repopulate the colonic flora, with efficacy rates of greater than 90% demonstrated even in cases refractory to antibiotic therapy.[45] Several studies have shown that FMT by colonoscopy or enema is an effective approach for patients with recurrent C difficile colitis, with clinical success rates of up to 95%.[46, 47]

Long-term data from a fecal transplantation clinical trial (≥3 mo from the time of fecal transplantation) revealed that of the 77 of 98 patients who could be contacted, 91% did not have a relapse.[6] Of the patients who did relapse, all but 1 were treated successfully with vancomycin or additional fecal transplantation.[6]

In the first randomized, controlled trial of fecal transplantation, investigators in the Netherlands found fecal transfer to be 3 times more effective than antibiotics in curing recurrent CDI, leading to the study’s early termination.[7, 8] The study compared 3 treatments: (1) standard vancomycin therapy (500 mg PO QID for 14 days), (2) standard vancomycin therapy plus bowel lavage, and (3) 4 days of vancomycin therapy (500 mg PO QID) followed by bowel lavage and infusion of donor feces through a nasoduodenal tube.[7, 8]

In a retrospective study of 83 immunocompromised patients who underwent fecal transplantation for recurrent (12%), refractory (54%), or severe (34%) CDI, the cure rate after a single transplant was 79% (52 of the 66 patients with at least 12 weeks of follow-up). Seven of the 9 patients who underwent a second transplant were also cured. Mean follow-up was 12 months. Serious adverse events, including 2 deaths, occurred within 12 weeks of the transplant in 10 patients (15%).[48]

Of the patients treated with fecal transplantation, 13 of 16 (81%) had resolution of C difficile –associated diarrhea after the first infusion, and 2 of the 3 remaining patients experienced resolution after receiving a second infusion with feces from a different donor.[7, 8] CDI resolved in 4 of 13 patients (31%) receiving vancomycin alone and in 3 of 13 patients (23%) receiving vancomycin with bowel lavage.[7, 8]

However, note that FMT is limited by the risk of infection transmission (human immunodeficiency virus [HIV], hepatitis, and retrovirus). Administration of other bacterial preparations is under investigation.

A meta-analysis of intestinal microbiota transplantation (IMT) in which intestinal microorganisms in a suspension of healthy donor stool were infused into the intestines of patients with recurrent CDI and pseudomembranous colitis found that out of 317 patients across 27 case series and reports, 92% were successfully treated with this therapy.[49] Adverse effects were uncommon. Although further study is required, this review supports the IMT as a promising treatment for recurrent CDI.[49]



C difficile is now recognized as a major nosocomial pathogen, and universal precautions against it should be implemented. The following guidelines are recommended when dealing with patients with C difficile colitis[5, 24] :

  • Use disposable gloves, laboratory coats, and proper washing techniques
  • Educate the medical and nursing staff, as well as family and visitors, regarding the disease and its epidemiology, and emphasize compliance with hand hygiene practices (such as washing with soap or antimicrobial soap and water)
  • Hospital transmission is likely associated with the survival of spores on inanimate objects; therefore, close attention to cleanliness and disinfective measures are important (eg, use of contact precautions for ≥48 h following resolution of diarrhea, disposable electronic rectal thermometers, chlorine-containing cleansers or other sporicidal agents), particularly during the patient’s diarrheal period
  • Isolation of patients who are infected is strongly recommended but often impractical at most hospitals; in such situations, a dedicated commode for each patient should be provided

The most important preventive measure is the judicious use of antimicrobial agents. Principal CDI prevention recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) and the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), include improved antibiotic therapy, early and accurate CDI detection, isolation of symptomatic patients, and reduction of C difficile contamination on environmental surfaces in healthcare settings.[5, 24]

CDI risk is increased 7- to 10-fold during antibiotic use and for 1 month after the drug is discontinued; the risk is approximately 3-fold during the second and third month after discontinuation.[24]

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Faten N Aberra, MD MSCE, Assistant Professor Of Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Faten N Aberra, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Gastroenterology, American Gastroenterological Association, Sigma Xi, Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Jennifer A Curry, MD, MPH Attending Physician, Infectious Disease Clinic, Naval Medical Center Portsmouth; Assistant Professor of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

Jennifer A Curry, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Society for Microbiology, American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Infectious Diseases Society of America

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

BS Anand, MD Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, Baylor College of Medicine

BS Anand, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, American College of Gastroenterology, American Gastroenterological Association, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.



The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the US government.

LCDR Jennifer Curry is a military service member. This work was prepared as part of official duties. Title 17 U.S.C. §105 provides that ‘Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government.’ Title 17 U.S.C. §101 defines a U.S. Government work as a work prepared by a military service member or employee of the US Government as part of that person’s official duties.

Additional Contributors

Burke A Cunha, MD Professor of Medicine, State University of New York School of Medicine at Stony Brook; Chief, Infectious Disease Division, Winthrop-University Hospital

Burke A Cunha, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Physicians, and Infectious Diseases Society of America

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Gary L Gorby, MD Associate Professor, Departments of Internal Medicine and Medical Microbiology and Immunology, Division of Infectious Diseases, Creighton University School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Nebraska Medical Center; Associate Chair, Omaha Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Gary L Gorby, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Medical Association, American Society for Microbiology, Infectious Diseases Society of America, and New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Craig A Gronczewski, MD Clinical Assistant Professor, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; Consulting Staff, Princeton Medical Center; Consulting Staff, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital

Craig A Gronczewski, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha and American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Braden R Hale, MD, MPH Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, University of California at San Diego; Consulting Staff, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Naval Medical Center at San Diego

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Duane R Hospenthal, MD, PhD, FACP, FIDSA Adjunct Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio

Duane R Hospenthal, MD, PhD, FACP, FIDSA is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Physicians, American Medical Association, American Society for Microbiology, American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Armed Forces Infectious Diseases Society, Association of Military Surgeons of the US, Infectious Diseases Society of America, International Society for Human and Animal Mycology, International Society for Infectious Diseases,International Society of Travel Medicine, and Medical Mycology Society of the Americas

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Joseph F John Jr, MD, FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA Clinical Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine; Associate Chief of Staff for Education, Ralph H Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Jonathan P Katz, MD Assistant Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Jonathan P Katz, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Gastroenterological Association and American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Joseph Lee, MD Staff Physician, Department of Medicine, Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Waqar A Qureshi, MD Associate Professor of Medicine, Chief of Endoscopy, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, Baylor College of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Waqar A Qureshi, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Gastroenterology, American College of Physicians, American Gastroenterological Association, and American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

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Endoscopic visualization of pseudomembranous colitis, a characteristic manifestation of full-blown Clostridium difficile colitis. Classic pseudomembranes are visible as raised, yellow plaques ranging from 2 to 10 mm in diameter and scattered over the colorectal mucosa. Courtesy of Gregory Ginsberg, MD, University of Pennsylvania.
Colonic pseudomembranes of pseudomembranous colitis. Photographs courtesy of Eric M. Osgard, MD.
Gross pathology specimen from a case of pseudomembranous colitis revealing the characteristic yellowish plaques.
Gross pathology specimen from a case of pseudomembranous colitis, again demonstrating the characteristic yellowish plaques.
Frontal abdominal radiograph in a patient with proved pseudomembranous colitis. Note the nodular haustral thickening, most pronounced in the transverse colon.
Barium enema demonstrating the typical serrated appearance of the barium column (resulting from trapped barium between the edematous mucosal folds and the plaquelike membranes of pseudomembranous colitis).
Axial computed tomography scan of pseudomembranous colitis.
Computed tomography scan of pseudomembranous colitis.
Ultrasonographic image of pseudomembranous colitis.
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