Learn About Pseudomembranous Colitis

What is the definition of Pseudomembranous Colitis?

Pseudomembranous colitis refers to swelling or inflammation of the large intestine (colon) due to an overgrowth of Clostridioides difficile (C difficile) bacteria.

This infection is a common cause of diarrhea after antibiotic use.

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What are the alternative names for Pseudomembranous Colitis?

Antibiotic-associated colitis; Colitis - pseudomembranous; Necrotizing colitis; C difficile - pseudomembranous

What are the causes of Pseudomembranous Colitis?

The C difficile bacteria normally lives in the intestine. However, too much of these bacteria may grow when you take antibiotics. The bacteria give off a strong toxin that causes inflammation and bleeding in the lining of the colon.

Any antibiotic can cause this condition. The drugs responsible for the problem most of the time are ampicillin, clindamycin, fluoroquinolones, and cephalosporins.

Health care providers in the hospital may pass this bacteria from one person to another.

Pseudomembranous colitis is uncommon in children, and rare in infants. It is most often seen in people who are in the hospital. However, it is becoming more common in people who take antibiotics and are not in a hospital.

Risk factors include:

  • Older age
  • Antibiotic use
  • Use of medicines that weaken the immune system (such as chemotherapy medicines)
  • Recent surgery
  • History of pseudomembranous colitis
  • History of ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease
What are the symptoms of Pseudomembranous Colitis?

Symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramps (mild to severe)
  • Bloody stools
  • Fever
  • Urge to have a bowel movement
  • Watery diarrhea (often 5 to 10 times per day)
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What are the current treatments for Pseudomembranous Colitis?

The antibiotic or other medicine causing the condition should be stopped. Metronidazole, vancomycin, or fidaxomicin are most often used to treat the problem, but other medicines may also be used.

Electrolyte solutions or fluids given through a vein may be needed to treat dehydration due to diarrhea. In rare cases, surgery is needed to treat infections that get worse or do not respond to antibiotics.

Long term antibiotics may be needed if the C difficile infection returns. A new treatment called fecal microbiota transplant ("stool transplant") has also been effective for infections that come back.

Your provider may also suggest that you take probiotics if the infection returns.

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What is the outlook (prognosis) for Pseudomembranous Colitis?

The outlook is good in most cases, if there are no complications. However, up to 1 in 5 infections may return and need more treatment.

What are the possible complications of Pseudomembranous Colitis?

Complications may include:

  • Dehydration with electrolyte imbalance
  • Perforation of (hole through) the colon
  • Toxic megacolon
  • Death
When should I contact a medical professional for Pseudomembranous Colitis?

Call your provider if you have the following symptoms:

  • Any bloody stools (especially after taking antibiotics)
  • Five or more episodes of diarrhea per day for more than 1 to 2 days
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Signs of dehydration
How do I prevent Pseudomembranous Colitis?

People who have had pseudomembranous colitis should tell their providers before taking antibiotics again. It is also very important to wash hands well to prevent passing the germ to other people. Alcohol sanitizers do not always work on C difficile.

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What are the latest Pseudomembranous Colitis Clinical Trials?
New Treatment Strategy for Patients With Multiple Recurrent Clostridioides Difficile Infection With Bezlotoxumab as First Option

Summary: The objective of this trial is to investigate whether a treatment strategy offering bezlotoxumab before FMT in patients suffering from multiple recurrent CDI results in equal efficacy compared with a treatment strategy with initial FMT. Strategy A includes bezlotoxumab as ancillary treatment as first option, and FMT in case of failure. Option B includes FMT as ancillary treatment as first option, ...

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Fecal Microbiota Transplantation in Refractory Clostridium Difficile Colitis

Summary: It has been shown that restoration of the normal makeup of the bowel bacterial population is the most effective way to treat recurrent colitis due to Clostridium difficile. Restoration of the normal bowel bacterial population is best done by transplanting stool from a healthy donor. The investigators wish to transplant stool from healthy donors to treat recurrent C. difficile colitis by incorporat...

What are the Latest Advances for Pseudomembranous Colitis?
Can flunarizine be used routinely as the first option for childhood headache treatment?: Flunarizine and childhood headache.
Outcomes of total versus partial colectomy in fulminant Clostridium difficile colitis: a propensity matched analysis.
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Who are the sources who wrote this article ?

Published Date: April 30, 2020
Published By: Bradley J. Winston, MD, board certified in gastroenterology and hepatology, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

What are the references for this article ?

Gerding DN, Johnson S. Clostridial infections. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 280.

Gerding DN, Young VB. Donskey CJ. Clostridiodes difficile (formerly Clostridium difficle) infection. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 243.

Kelly CP, Khanna S. Antibiotic-associated diarrhea and clostridioides difficile infection. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 112.

McDonald LC, Gerding DN, Johnson S, et al. Clinical practice guidelines for clostridium difficile Infection in adults and children: 2017 update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) and Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA). Clin Infect Dis. 2018;66(7):987-994. PMID: 29562266 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29562266/.