Clostridium difficile infection (CDI) is a unique colonic disease that is acquired almost exclusively in association with antimicrobial use and the consequent disruption of the normal colonic flora. The most commonly diagnosed diarrheal illness acquired in the hospital, CDI results from the ingestion of spores of C. difficile that vegetate, multiply, and secrete toxins, causing diarrhea and pseudomembranous colitis (PMC).
Etiology and Epidemiology
C. difficile is an obligately anaerobic, gram-positive, spore-forming bacillus whose spores are found widely in nature, particularly in the environment of hospitals and chronic-care facilities. CDI occurs most frequently in hospitals and nursing homes where the level of antimicrobial use is high and the environment is contaminated by C. difficile spores.
Clindamycin, ampicillin, and cephalosporins were the first antibiotics associated with CDI. The second- and third-generation cephalosporins, particularly cefotaxime, ceftriaxone, cefuroxime, and ceftazidime, are agents frequently responsible for this condition, and the fluoroquinolones (ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin, and moxifloxacin) are the most recent drug class to be implicated in hospital outbreaks. Penicillin/β-lactamase-inhibitor combinations such as ticarcillin/clavulanate and piperacillin/tazobactam pose significantly less risk. However, all antibiotics, including vancomycin and metronidazole (the agents most commonly used to treat CDI), have been found to carry a risk of subsequent CDI. Rare cases are reported in patients without prior antibiotic exposure.
C. difficile is acquired exogenously, most frequently in the hospital or nursing home, and is carried in the stool of symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. The rate of fecal colonization is often ≥20% among adult patients hospitalized for >1 week; in contrast, the rate is 1–3% among community residents. Community-onset CDI without recent hospitalization probably accounts for ≤10% of all cases. The risk of C. difficile acquisition increases in proportion to length of hospital stay. Asymptomatic fecal carriage of C. difficile in healthy neonates is very common, with rates often exceeding 50% during the first 6 months of life, but associated disease in this population is rare. Spores of C. difficile are found on environmental surfaces (where the organism can persist for months) and on the hands of hospital personnel who fail to practice good hand hygiene. Hospital epidemics of CDI have been attributed to a single C. difficile strain and to multiple strains present simultaneously. Other identified risk factors for CDI include older age, greater severity of underlying illness, gastrointestinal surgery, use of electronic rectal thermometers, enteral tube feeding, and antacid treatment. Use of proton pump inhibitors may be a risk factor, but this risk is probably modest, and no firm data have implicated these agents in patients who are not already receiving antibiotics.
Pathology and Pathogenesis
Spores of toxigenic C. difficile are ingested, survive gastric acidity, germinate in the small bowel, and colonize the lower intestinal tract, where they elaborate two large toxins: toxin A (an enterotoxin) and toxin B (a cytotoxin). These toxins initiate processes resulting in the disruption of epithelial-cell barrier function, diarrhea, and pseudomembrane formation. Toxin A is a potent neutrophil chemoattractant, and both toxins glucosylate the GTP-binding proteins of the Rho subfamily that regulate the actin cell cytoskeleton. Data from studies using molecular disruption of toxin genes in isogenic mutants suggest that toxin B is the essential virulence factor; this possibility, if confirmed, might account for the occurrence of clinical disease caused by toxin A–negative strains. Disruption of the cytoskeleton results in loss of cell shape, adherence, and tight junctions, with consequent fluid leakage. A third toxin, binary toxin CDT, was previously found in only ∼6% of strains but is present in all isolates of the newly recognized epidemic strain (see “Global Considerations,” below); this toxin is related to C. perfringens iota toxin. Its role in the pathogenesis of CDI has not yet been defined.
The pseudomembranes of PMC are confined to the colonic mucosa and initially appear as 1- to 2-mm whitish-yellow plaques. The intervening mucosa appears unremarkable, but, as the disease progresses, the pseudomembranes coalesce to form larger plaques and become confluent over the entire colon wall (Fig. 129-1). The whole colon is usually involved, but 10% of patients have rectal sparing. Viewed microscopically, the pseudomembranes have a mucosal attachment point and contain necrotic leukocytes, fibrin, mucus, and cellular debris. The epithelium is eroded and necrotic in focal areas, with neutrophil infiltration of the mucosa.
Autopsy specimen showing confluent pseudomembranes covering the cecum of a patient with pseudomembranous colitis. Note the sparing of the terminal ileum (arrow).
Patients colonized with C. difficile were initially thought to be at high risk for CDI. However, four prospective studies have shown that colonized patients actually have a decreased risk of subsequent CDI. At least three events are proposed as essential for the development of CDI (Fig. 129-2). Exposure to antimicrobial agents is the first event and establishes susceptibility to C. difficile infection. The second event is exposure to toxigenic C. difficile. Given that the majority of patients do not develop CDI after the first two events, a third event is clearly essential for its occurrence. Candidate third events include exposure to a C. difficile strain of particular virulence, exposure to antimicrobial agents especially likely to cause CDI, and an inadequate host immune response. The host anamnestic serum IgG antibody response to toxin A of C. difficile is the most likely third event that determines which patients develop diarrhea and which patients remain asymptomatic. The majority of humans first develop antibody to C. difficile toxins when colonized asymptomatically during the first year of life. Infants are thought not to develop symptomatic CDI because they lack suitable mucosal toxin receptors that develop later in life. In adulthood, serum levels of IgG antibody to toxin A increase more in response ...