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Clostridium difficile and C. difficile Toxin Testing

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Also known as: C. difficile; C. diff; C diff antigen; GDH
Formal name: Clostridium difficile Culture; C. difficile Toxin, A and B; C. difficile Cytotoxin Assay; Glutamate Dehydrogenase Test
Related tests: Stool Culture; O&P

The Test Sample

What is being tested?

Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) is a type of bacteria that is associated with diarrhea resulting from antibiotic use. C. difficile testing and C. difficile toxin tests identify the presence of these bacteria and detect the toxins produced by them.

C. difficile may be present as part of the normal bacterial flora in the digestive tract of up to 65% of healthy infants and 3% of healthy adults. Sometimes, when broad-spectrum antibiotics are used to treat other infections, typically for an extended period, the balance of the normal flora in the digestive tract is disrupted. Normal bacterial flora that are susceptible to the antibiotic are eliminated from the digestive tract, while C. difficile that are resistant to the antibiotic remain and begin to overgrow, or new types (strains) of C. difficile are acquired.

C. difficile usually produced two toxins: toxin A and toxin B. The resulting combination of decreased normal flora, overgrowth of C. difficile, and toxin production can damage the lining of the lower portion of the digestive tract (colon, bowel) and lead to severe inflammation of the colon and prolonged diarrhea. Dead tissue, fibrin, and numerous white blood cells can form a lining over the surface of the inflamed bowel (a pseudomembrane), a condition that is referred to as pseudomembranous colitis.

C. difficile infection is the most common cause of diarrhea in people who develop diarrheal symptoms while hospitalized. C. difficile toxin is detected in the stools of up to 20-30% of those with antibiotic-associated diarrhea and greater than 95% of those with pseudomembranous colitis. While the organism is frequently carried by infants, it does not usually cause diarrhea in this population.

The risk of having symptoms increases with age and increases in those who have weakened immune systems, have acute or chronic colon conditions, have been previously affected by C. difficile, or who have had recent gastrointestinal surgery or chemotherapy. C. difficile-associated diarrhea usually occurs in people who have been taking antibiotics for several days, but it can also occur several weeks after treatment is completed.

C. difficile-associated disease is a spectrum of illness ranging from mild diarrhea to a more severe colitis, or to toxic megacolon or perforated bowel, which can result in sepsis and death. Signs and symptoms may include frequent loose stools, abdominal pain and cramps, nausea, fever, dehydration, fatigue, and high white blood cell count (leukocytosis). Treatment typically involves discontinuing use of the original antibiotic and administering specific oral antibiotic therapy to which the C. difficile is susceptible. Most people improve as the normal bacterial flora re-colonize the gastrointestinal tract, but about 12-24% of those affected may have a second episode within two months.

For a description of tests used to identify C. difficile and toxins, see the "How is it used?" section.

How is the sample collected for testing?

A fresh liquid or unformed stool sample is collected in a sterile container. The stool sample should not be contaminated with urine or water. Once it has been collected, the stool should be taken to the laboratory immediately or refrigerated and taken to the lab as soon as possible.

NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.

Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.

Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?

No test preparation is needed.