C. diff in babies: an unsolved mystery

By December 11, 2015November 24th, 2017Blog

The following article was excerpted from C. Diff In 30 Minutes: A guide to Clostridium difficile for patients and families by Dr. J. Thomas Lamont, M.D.

C. diff was originally discovered in healthy babies, who seem to tolerate this nasty bug in their stools without getting sick. About 70% of infants during the first year of life carry C. diff. Why they don’t show signs of disease like diarrhea or fever remains a mystery.

Can babies get C. diff - clostridium difficile in infantsOne theory is that the infant’s bowel doesn’t “recognize” Clostridium difficile or its toxins. C. diff toxins cause diarrhea by hooking on to a special toxin receptor, much like a key opens a lock. Once the toxin (the key) hooks on to its receptor (the lock), it opens the floodgates of diarrhea and causes fever, cramps, and other signs of acute infection. Healthy infants lack this receptor, so they don’t get sick even though they are carrying enough C. diff to cause severe diarrhea in an adult. After the first year of life, babies develop the receptor and can develop C. diff just like adults. So, finding C. diff in the stool of an infant is not worrisome. Eventually, C. diff will disappear from the intestinal tract when the infant reaches 10-12 months.

Can babies make other people sick with C. diff?

Can babies spread C. diff to other family members, babysitters, or health-care workers? The answer is yes, but in practice it’s very rare. Sometimes mothers of newborn babies have to take antibiotics for a urinary tract infection. The antibiotics can damage the protective stool barrier allowing C. diff to get in and cause infection. I have treated a few moms who probably caught C. diff from their newborns. I have also treated a neonatologist (a pediatric specialist in newborn diseases) who probably picked up C. diff at work from one of her sick newborns.

Even though babies can carry C. diff, we don’t recommend any special precautions to mothers or other family members. Catching C. diff from a baby is so rare that enforcing special precautions is probably not necessary. Wearing rubber gloves when diapering, or hand washing after changing diapers, is always recommended, especially if the person changing the diaper is taking an antibiotic.

Being a carrier of C. diff is beneficial to the baby. Healthy babies who are carriers develop an immune reaction to C. diff toxins that results in the formation of antibodies that protect against C. diff infection. Immunity to C. diff developing during the first year of life can last a lifetime and protect patients who later come in contact with C. diff. Those who have antibodies become “carriers” with no diarrhea, while those with no antibody can develop full-blown C. diff. Since about 70% of babies are carriers, this implies that they will likely never get C. diff when they grow up!

To learn more about C. diff, download or purchase a copy of C. Diff In 30 Minutes: A guide to Clostridium difficile for patients and families by Dr. J. Thomas Lamont, M.D.