Every healthy human being has what are called intestinal flora, microbes living in the gut that are of great importance in digestion and the immune response. These microorganisms are not a sign of disease; on the contrary, they are such an integral part of digestion that they are sometimes considered practically an organ in their own right, though the intestinal flora aren’t part of the body. However, when they get out of control, they can cause health problems just like any infectious agent.
For example, one of these microbes is Clostridium difficile. C. diff is normally present in the gut, but in limited numbers. However, when other gut bacteria are removed and C. diff is unchecked, it can cause serious illness. C. diff infection symptoms include watery diarrhea, fever, and nausea, and the infection can even lead to colitis.
In 2010, more than a third of a million people were hospitalized after developing a C. diff infection, and approximately another 150,000 were treated outside of hospitals. The condition is often spread in hospitals, where it is the most common cause of diarrhea. It leads to an estimated 30,000 deaths every year, directly or indirectly.
People are at risk for C. diff who are undergoing long-term antibiotic treatment, which can upset the balance of intestinal flora. Chemotherapy drugs and proton pump inhibitors (prescribed for chronic indigestion, GERD, and other conditions) can also make someone more prone to C. diff infection. In addition, people who have had one C. diff infection are more prone to another one.
The disease can be prevented with probiotics. Available as supplements or in some kinds of yogurt, probiotics help encourage the growth of the flora that help keep down C. diff. Administering probiotics to at-risk patients led to a 66 percent lower infection rate, according to a recent analysis of several studies.
If a patient does become infected, one available—though disgusting—treatments is called a fecal transplant. This is what it sounds like, unfortunately, though it is 90 percent successful. The idea is for the microbes from the donor help drive down the patient’s C. diff levels and fight back against the tide. A report last week suggested that this might soon be the standard treatment.