When you have IBD and you start to notice GI symptoms going awry, it’s easy to allow your mind to start racing and your worries to become all-consuming. This past week I did an in-person patient advocacy speaking engagement, came home, and started feeling extremely fatigued. Within an hour, I vomited, and the diarrhea began. Not to be TMI (is that even a thing when you have IBD?), but this wasn’t just “normal” diarrhea. It felt like I was prepping for a colonoscopy. Straight water-like diarrhea that hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t stop. In that moment, I thought about how I was on an antibiotic for a sinus infection and bronchitis and knew that alone, with Crohn’s disease, put me at greater risk for C.diff.
For those who don’t know, “C.diff” or Clostridioides difficile is a bacterium that causes an infection of the large intestine (colon). Symptoms can range from diarrhea to life-threatening damage to the colon. According to the Mayo Clinic, C.diff typically occurs after or during the use of antibiotic medications. In the United States, about 500,000 people are infected each year.
The risk of C.diff and IBD
When I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom, I immediately contacted my GI. Being that it was 4 pm on a Friday, the timing of it all was challenging. She called me from home and said she normally wouldn’t be too concerned, but the fact I had just finished a course of prednisone while being on doxycycline put me at greater risk. She warned that if I had diarrhea the following day or if I had a fever at any time, that I would need to get tested for C. diff and go to the hospital. She put in orders so I would be able to do so and told me to contact the Fellow on staff if I had concerns over the weekend.
Saturday came and with the bathroom trips came unbelievable abdominal pain, reminiscent of what a bowel obstruction feels like. I could barely walk and was grasping my abdomen in pain hunched over. I had already called and spoken to the Fellow on call three different times. In that moment, my husband called his mom so she could watch our three kids and we rushed to the emergency room.
A study by the University of Michigan recently looked into the relationship between IBD and C.Diff. The study found that people with IBD are at an increased risk for C.diff, even if we haven’t taken antibiotics. It’s believed something about the IBD gut supports C.diff colonization and growth, but the actual relationship is still a bit mysterious. This study looked at a mouse model and found, “inflammation and changes in the gut microbiota associated with IBD promote C.diff intestinal colonization.”
For those of us with IBD, our immune system mistakes normal intestinal microbes as harmful invaders and attacks them, leading to inflammation in our guts. The cause of C.diff is similar, with the immune system, microbiota, and C.diff itself playing a role in infection.
The burden of C.diff on the IBD population
According to an interview in Pharmacy Times, we’re at greater risk for C.diff when our IBD is active. This is because active inflammation changes the flora in our microbiome and puts us at greater risk for developing infection. In this piece Bincy Abraham, MD, MS says we see C.diff in both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease patients but tend to see it more in those with UC since the colon is directly impacted.
Get this—A database of patients with IBD showed 10% will have at least one C. diffinfection over the course of their lifetime. Half will have more than one. WebMD shares that C.diff infection begins with frequent, watery, foul-smelling bowel movements and cramps in your abdomen. When I was unsure if I had C.diff that was the number one question I kept getting asked. People told me the smell was very unique—like a barnyard, sour smell. Thanks to my sinus infection congestion, I had no idea what it smelled like. But—it’s important to look out for that if symptoms present. Medical professionals told me they can tell right away by the smell, if it’s C.diff.
Symptoms of C.diff
While watery diarrhea with a strong odor is the main indicator—there are other symptoms to watch out for:
-Abdominal pain and cramps
-Fever (I had the chills, but my GI assured me that was due to dehydration from the diarrhea)
-Nausea and/or vomiting
-Loss of appetite
-In severe cases, blood or pus in stools
For anyone with IBD, these symptoms are reflective of what we experience with an IBD flare. So, it can feel especially concerning in the moment as you try and figure out what’s going on.
My rough ER experience and finally getting tested
I always him and haw and dread the thought of seeking medical care at the ER. It brings about so many emotions and past trauma. But in this case, I knew I needed to wave the white flag and get to the bottom of what was happening. After waiting four excruciating hours in the ER, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. I was moaning in pain and hobbling back and forth repeatedly to the bathroom. Bobby was using a wheelchair to push me around. The nurses in triage were incredibly unprofessional and lacked any empathy. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I was basically reprimanded for showing emotion about my pain and told others had it worse. It was despicable. She waved her “RN” badge in my face and said she had a woman die from a pulmonary embolism while in the waiting room and she didn’t make a peep. As I was crying, I yelled back, “I’M NOT A WIMP! I have Crohn’s disease!”
Once I was finally brought back to a room, the same nurse acted sweet as sugar. Gag me. The ER doctor had no clue what was going on. I was taken for a CT scan with contrast while in the waiting room and the young doctor walked up to me all cocky and said, “ So, you have an ileostomy.”…I said, no I don’t have an ostomy. He then proceeded to say, “Oh, so you had a reversal.” NO. I had bowel resection surgery. The fact the doctor was clueless to IBD and thought that because I had an anastomosis indicated a reversal (even though I have Crohn’s) was scary. I was given Zofran, fluids, and Dilaudid and was told it was most likely a stomach bug, but that they would like to do a stool sample to rule out C.diff.
Unfortunately, since I had literally shit my brains out in the ER for hours, I had nothing left. I hadn’t eaten in almost 30 hours. By the grace of God, around midnight, I was able to go. I was so grateful to have a stool sample and get some answers. The shift changed and a new doctor walked in. She was empathetic, kind, and knew her shit about IBD. I felt an immediate sense of relief. She told me they were going to do one more round of Zofran, fluids, dilaudid and add in Benadryl and Droperidol for anxiety and to calm things down and if that didn’t help, I would be admitted. Luckily, that heavy hitting dose of IV fluids and meds did the trick and I was finally comfortable and able to go home around 1:30 a.m., knowing that I’d get the C.diff result the next day.
Despite testing negative for C.diff, my diarrhea and excruciating abdominal pain lasted from Friday at 2 pm until Tuesday evening. This stomach bug was no joke and I always feel when you have IBD with a stomach bug, it’s next level.
The Patient Experience: What you had to say about C.diff
I ran a poll on Instagram, 307 people with IBD responded. Of that group, 37% have had C.diff. On Twitter, 147 people responded and 28% shared they had C.diff at some point during their patient journey. I was blown away by the hundreds of DM’s I received on Instagram when I asked for advice and was freaking out about the possibility of having it. I learned a great deal from all the insights shared. Here are some of the messages I received that I feel can benefit our community moving forward:
“I went through a case of C.diff this summer after two rounds of antibiotics and a round of steroids at the same time. I was miserable, only eating boiled potatoes with a little salt and bananas. Once I got meds (dificid), I saw improvement quickly. I also take Visbiome probiotic (prescription strength) and taking that regularly helped me in a period of waiting for results.”
“I had C.diff back in 2015…awful. It was so brutal. I was sick for over a month with it, just couldn’t shake it even with the crazy dosing of antibiotics.”
“Keep an eye on your temperature and if you’re running a fever with the diarrhea—that’s a big indicator.”
“I had C.diff on and off for four years and just got a fecal transplant in November and have been “cured” since. I’ve never thought C.diff was like the stomach flu/norovirus. C.diff to me is more like a bad IBD flare with some fever/chills and diarrhea that’s very distinct from whatever your “normal” IBD diarrhea may be.”
“I battled C.diff for a year. Ask for Vancomycin right away. It’s the best medication for it. Having Crohn’s and C.diff is a horrible combination. It caused me a lot of issues.”
“I had C.diff earlier this year. My symptoms included a very smelly gas, low-grade fever, abdominal cramps, and mushy stool. Pedialyte, broth, and tea helped a lot.”
“Every time I take antibiotics, I take saccharomyces boulardii (probiotic). The specific strain helps prevent C.diff.”
“C.diff is MISERABLE. I can normally smell if it’s C.diff. I’ve had it five times. Go to the ER and do not wait. It’s so horrible. It’s exhausting and being that sick is the worst. The pain is awful, too. No one ever discusses how much pain it puts people in.”
“I’ve had C.diff so many times. Output is like colored water, and I go 20-plus times a day. Mine way always a weird yellowish color. Going to the ER means a quicker diagnosis and for me I end up inpatient, too. With C.diff I’ve found liquid Vancomycin works best as it’s absorbed faster, the pills just went straight through me.”
“C.diff is super hard to get rid of, so fast treatment is key. I had a recurrent infection for nearly a year. I took Vancomycin 4x/day for a few weeks and eventually tapered down. I think it was just a nasty strain, but I eventually kicked it out.”
“C.diff is a doozy to have. The hardest part for me was keeping family and friends away as it’s super contagious, too. I remember a lot of Zofran. IV fluids and sleeping as much as humanly possible. Use wipes instead of toilet paper so your bum doesn’t get raw.”
“My brother had C.diff and the only thing to get rid of it was very strong antibiotics. Every time I’m on an antibiotic, it makes me very sick and puts me in a flare and I have choice but to start probiotics.”
“C.diff is rough and highly contagious. I had it right before I went on Humira. Make sure to bleach your bathroom and not to prepare food. My GI was super concerned about me giving it to my husband. My treatment was Vancomycin 125 mg orally 4x a day for 10 days.”
“I have been battling reoccurring C.diff for almost 2 years. Coming up on my second Fecal Transplant as the first failed. I was in a flare and absolutely nothing was working. Finally discovered underlying C.diff. Vancomycin changed my life. Within 48 hours I went from 15-20 bowel movements a day to 1-2.My doctors are baffled by how well I respond to it.”
“I’ve had C.diff more than once, the first time I waited almost too late to seek testing and ended up with dangerously low potassium, EKG changes, and was hospitalized. The second time I didn’t even know I had it until I was being worked up to join a clinical trial for my UC and had to do treatment, again. Liquid IV packets help ward off dehydration.”
“My son who has Crohn’s has had C.diff two times. Vancomycin with a long, slow taper was key to get rid of it both times. Wipe the bathroom down with bleach constantly.”
“C.diff is the actual worst. If you have it, skip Flagyl and go straight to Dificid. Flagyl made me SO sick. Like so much worse and it didn’t get rid of it…and that’s the case for multiple other people I know who’ve had it.”
“I had C.diff. I played the waiting game, and it was miserable. If your stool is completely watery and very foul smelling, then it’s C.diff.”
“I take Culturelle Probiotics Digestive Health Extra Strength whenever I’m on an antibiotic to prevent it.”
“I had reoccurring C.diff during the pandemic, a few months after my bowel resection, and for recurring months after. They would usually do a fecal transplant, but they were on hold because of COVID. It took months to get better.”
Kick C.diff to the curb
Ironically, while C.diff can be brought on by antibiotics, the only way to get rid of it…is to take more antibiotics. The three most prescribed are Vancomycin, Flagyl and Dificid. In severe cases, especially when toxic megacolon becomes an issue, you might need surgery to remove the damaged portions of your bowel. Other options for reoccurring infection include Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT), where donor stool is introduced in your colon. Probiotics and antibody therapy are often used as well. Certain antibodies are known to provide immunity against the toxins produced by C.diff. A combination of the medications actoxumab and bezlotoxumab can lower your changes of the infection coming back.
When I received the negative C.diff test result I felt such relief. So many of my symptoms aligned with the tall-tale signs, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The entire process has been such a learning experience and I hope that you’ve taken away some helpful nuggets of knowledge should you ever question you have C.diff yourself.