Pseudomembranous colitis is an inflammation of colonic mucosa caused by the toxins released by Clostridium (now reclassified as Clostridioides) difficile.
- Accounts for up to 3 million cases of diarrhea and colitis in the United States every year
- Approximately 14,000 deaths in the US every year
- The majority of cases are hospital acquired.
- Up to 40% of cases of C. difficile colitis are community acquired.
- Caused by toxigenic strains of C. difficile:
- Gram-positive bacillus, obligate anaerobe
- C. difficile can exist in 2 forms:
- Spore form: outside the colon; resistant to heat, acid, and antibiotics
- Vegetative form: in the intestine
- Highly contagious
- Spores transmitted via fecal-oral route
- Recent antibiotic treatment is the main risk factor. Most commonly implicated antibiotics:
- Other risk factors:
- Proton-pump inhibitors (gastric-acid suppression)
- Advanced age > 65
- Medical comorbidities
- Gastrointestinal surgery
- Enteral feeding
- Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation
- Inflammatory bowel disease
Pathophysiology and Clinical Presentation
- 2%–3% of healthy adults are colonized with C. difficile.
- 8%–10% of hospitalized adults are colonized.
- Disruption of the normal flora using antibiotics leads to the overgrowth of C. difficile.
- Most of the clinical infections are observed in newly colonized patients.
- Intestinal damage is due to toxin release.
- Toxins released by C. difficile:
- Enterotoxin A:
- Targets brush-border enzymes
- Alters fluid secretion
- Causes watery diarrhea
- Toxin B (10 times more potent):
- Depolymerizes actin
- Disrupts cytoskeleton of enterocytes
- Causes pseudomembranous colitis
- Enterotoxin A:
- Foul-smelling non-bloody diarrhea
- Cramping abdominal pain
- Fever, nausea, and vomiting
- Fulminant colitis:
- Acute abdominal distention and pain
- Signs of sepsis:
- Change in mental status
- Diarrhea may be absent at this point because of the developing colonic ileus.
- Toxic megacolon:
- Large bowel dilatation > 7 cm; cecum > 12 cm
- Systemic toxicity
- Colonic perforation, ischemia, and necrosis can develop.
|Characteristics||Mild-to-moderate colitis||Severe colitis||Fulminant colitis|
|Number of loose stools/day||< 6||≥ 6||≥ 6|
|WBC count||< 20,000/µL||> 20,000/µL||> 20,000/µL|
|Severe abdominal pain||–||+||+|
|Rising creatinine levels||–||+/–||+/–|
|Complete ileus or toxic megacolon||–||–||+|
|Radiological signs of colitis, ileus, or toxic megacolon||–||+/–||+|
- Acute onset of diarrhea without alternative explanations
- Treatment using antibiotics in the past 3 months
- Recent abdominal surgery
- Chronic medical conditions
- Findings minimal in mild cases
- Severe colitis:
- Diffuse abdominal tenderness/distention
- Signs of dehydration/sepsis: tachycardia, hypotension, fever, low urine output
- Stool studies:
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for C. difficile genes
- Enzyme immunoassay (EIA) for C. difficile antigen (rapid, widely available)
- EIA for C. difficile toxins A and B
- Blood tests:
- Leukocytosis (often > 20,000/μL)
- Hypokalemia (due to diarrhea)
- Findings in fulminant colitis:
- Serum creatinine > 1.5 (possible kidney injury caused by dehydration)
- ↑ Lactate levels
- Serum albumin < 2.5 g/dL
- Abdominal X-ray:
- Can show colonic dilatation
- Free air in case of perforation
- Computed tomography (CT) scan:
- Can detect colitis, ileus, or toxic megacolon
- Can reveal complications such as perforation
- Findings of pseudomembranous colitis:
- “Accordion sign” (with orally administered contrast; mucosal edema and inflammation)
- “Target sign,” “double-halo sign”: signs of mucosal edema
- Thickening of the colonic wall
- Pericolonic stranding
- Not necessary if diagnosis is confirmed based on stool studies
- Only needed if alternative diagnosis is considered
- Full colonoscopy is not recommended because of the risk of perforation.
- Friable mucosa
- Bowel-wall edema
- Raised yellow or off-white plaques up to 2 cm in diameter
- Form as a result of mucosal ulceration
- Intravenous resuscitation, electrolyte correction
- Stop the offending antibiotic if possible.
- Oral vancomycin
- Rectal vancomycin for patients with pronounced ileus
- Oral fidaxomicin
- Oral or intravenous metronidazole
- Fecal transplant:
- As an alternative to surgery in the case of fulminant colitis
- For recurrent CDI
- For patients who have not responded to at least 2 appropriate antibiotic regimens
- Fever > 38.5ºC (101.3ºF)
- Significant abdominal distension
- Altered mental status
- Serum lactate > 2.2 mmol/L
- Leukocytosis > 20,000 cells/mL
- Admission to the intensive care unit
- Failure to improve with medical therapy
- Colon perforation
- Total abdominal colectomy with end ileostomy
- Segmental colectomy is usually not recommended.
- Alternative to colectomy:
- Diverting-loop ileostomy with colonic lavage
- Not an option if perforation or necrosis is present
Prevention of hospital transmission
- Gloving of personnel
- Isolation of the patient with designated bathroom facilities
- Avoiding the use of contaminated electronic thermometers and stethoscopes
- Use of hypochlorite (bleach) solution to decontaminate the rooms of patients
- Hand washing with soap (alcohol-containing hand gels are not sporicidal)
- Restricting the use of specific antibiotics:
- 2nd- and 3rd-generation cephalosporins
- Up to 25% of patients will experience recurrence within 30 days of completing treatment.
- Patients experiencing recurrence are at a higher risk of further recurrence.
- The overall mortality from pseudomembranous colitis is 4.9%–6.2%.
- Crohn’s disease (CD): a chronic, recurrent condition that causes patchy transmural inflammation in the terminal ileum and proximal colon. Patients with CD typically present with intermittent non-bloody diarrhea and crampy abdominal pain. Management is with corticosteroids, azathioprine, antibiotics, and anti-tumor necrosis factor (TNF) agents. Complications include malabsorption, intestinal obstruction or fistula, and an increased risk of colon cancer.
- Ulcerative colitis (UC): an idiopathic inflammatory condition that involves the mucosal surface of the colon. Diffuse friability, erosions with bleeding, and loss of haustra are observed in UC. Patients present with bloody diarrhea, colicky abdominal pain, tenesmus, and fecal urgency. Diagnosis is established based on endoscopy with biopsy. Management is with topical mesalamine or 6-mercaptopurine, or colectomy for severe cases.
- Infectious diarrhea (Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella oxytoca, Clostridium perfringens, and Salmonella): presents with clinical manifestations similar to those of C. difficile infections. The diagnosis is distinguished based on stool culture. Management is mostly supportive and requires the use of antibiotics in some cases.
- Diarrheagenic Escherichia coli: causes enteritis, enterocolitis, and colitis. Patients usually present with watery/bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Diagnosis is established based on culture and/or PCR using stool samples. The treatment consists of supportive therapy (fluids and electrolytes). Although antibiotics are reserved for severe/persistent cases, they are contraindicated in a few cases.
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