Wash your hands: Diarrhea-causing bacteria C.diff is ‘everywhere’

HOUSTON, Texas — Clostridium difficile (C.diff) is a form of bacteria which causes severe diarrhea and colon inflammation. Unsettlingly, researchers from the University of Houston report it is “everywhere” in non-healthcare settings in the United States and all over the globe.

Tests on a “worldwide sample” revealed C.diff on 26 percent of environmental samples from both health care and non-health care sites. Shoe soles appear to be especially susceptible to picking up the bacteria: 45 percent of all included soles tested positive.

While they’re not generally a subject people discuss often, C.diff infections are actually quite common. Estimates show that the bacteria is responsible for 15,000 annual deaths in the U.S. alone and close to half a million infections.

“C. diff infection was known historically as a hospital-associated infection, and efforts to reduce the infection and control its spread have been focused on hospitals and long-term care facilities,” says Jinhee Jo, a postdoctoral infectious disease fellow at the University of Houston and presenting author, in a media release. “Recently, cases of community-acquired C. diff have been increasing, which suggests the need for broader community stewardship.”

So what can society do to fix the problem?

Between 2014 and 2017, the research team collected samples from various areas including health care settings, shoe soles, and public spaces across 11 different countries.

“The results of this study shift our understanding of C. diff, including where it is found, how it is transmitted, and who it affects,” explains Kevin W. Garey, professor of pharmacy practice at the UH College of Pharmacy. “We can no longer think of C. diff as only existing in health care settings, and the population at risk is no longer just the very sick patient in the hospital. Identifying that person at risk anywhere in the world should become a priority regardless of whether the person is in a hospital or the community.”

The bright side of all this is that everyone can pitch in to remove C.diff from our communities and buildings. Study authors say it all starts with practicing proper hand hygiene, as well as regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and removing shoes indoors.

“The bottoms of your shoes aren’t clean,” Jo concludes. “They may introduce harmful bacteria into your bathroom or kitchen, which could make you sick. The next time you’re coming in from outside, take off your shoes before you enter a highly trafficked room and help reduce the risk of catching C. difficile.”

Researchers presented their findings at the Infectious Disease Society of America IDWeek.