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Treating a bacterial infection with bacteria lowers chances of recurrence

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Many of us have never heard of a bad bacterial infection called C. diff. It strikes a half million Americans a year, killing close to 30,000. New research finds treating patients with a different strain of the same bacteria can lower the chances of recurrence.

C. diff is short for Clostridium difficile. It often attacks people in hospitals and nursing homes, but you can get C. diff anywhere. Think of it as the worst kind of guest -- one that won't leave. C. diff spores can sit on a faucet, a phone or remote control for months. The bacteria which come from feces are passed to the hands and then into our bodies, usually at mealtime. C. diff causes diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, loss of appetite and fever.

"I felt like the lining of my colon was being ripped out. I needed to be near a washroom at all times," a patient, Cheryl O'Riordan told the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A gastrointestinal specialist at the University of Kansas Hospital says even with medicine, the infection frequently comes back.

"About a third -- 30 to 35 percent -- can have recurrence or failure of those antibiotics, requiring either a second and sometimes third course of therapy, and then still get it," said Dr. Mollie Jackson.

A study in JAMA finds a promising way to fight C. diff. It's with C. diff. Patients swallowed a liquid containing a non-toxic strain of the bacteria.

"If that strain can be established in your gut, it will keep out the toxigenic strains. In fact, it may force out some of these toxigenic strains," said Dr. Dale Gerding, a researcher with Loyola University.

In the study, only 11 percent of patients who got the non-toxic strain had a repeat infection compared to 30 percent who didn't get it.

Right now, fecal transplants are used to treat repeat infections. Feces are transplanted from another person. The new treatment would have a much lower "ick" factor.

"This definitely is less invasive and it has less side effects and risks," said Dr. Jackson.

She says to lower your chances of getting C. diff, wash your hands with soap and water and avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics.

Infection control experts say if you have a loved one in the hospital or nursing home, make sure the staff is doing regular, thorough cleaning of surfaces with bleach, and that your loved one's hands are washed frequently, especially at mealtime.