Deadly Gut Bacteria Infections Peak in Spring

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People may be more likely to get infected with the sometimes deadly gut bacteria called "C. diff” during the spring, according to a new study.

Researchers analyzed information from people who were discharged from U.S. hospitals between 2001 and 2010. During this time period, about 2.3 million people were released from a hospital following an infection with Clostridium difficile, which can cause severe diarrhea, and frequently comes back after treatment.

In the spring, there were about 62 cases of C. difficile for every 10,000 people discharged from the hospital, the study found.

In winter and summer, there were 59 C. difficile cases per 10,000 people discharged from the hospital, and the lowest rate was seen in the fall, when there were 56 C. difficile cases per 10,000 hospital discharges. [6 Superbugs to Watch Out For]

Most cases of C. difficile occur after people take antibiotics, which disturb the normal balance of gut bacteria, giving harmful bacteria the chance to overgrow. It's possible that the rates of C. difficile infection are the highest in the spring because people use more antibiotics during the winter months to treat respiratory infections, the researchers said. There can be a one- to two-month lag between the time a person takes antibiotics, or antimicrobials, and when he or she develops a C. difficile infection.

The new finding "emphasizes the importance of antimicrobials' use as a risk factor" for C. difficile infections, the researchers said. The results also underscore the need to better control infections and use antibiotics only when they are needed," particularly during high-risk seasons and in high-risk areas, the researchers wrote.

The study also found that, over the 10-year study period, the rates of C. difficile infection were the highest in the Northeast, where the overall rate was 80 cases per 10,000 hospital discharges, followed by the Midwest (64 cases per 10,000 hospital discharges), the South (50 cases per 10,000 hospital discharges) and the West (48 cases per 10,000 hospital discharges).

These regional differences in C. difficile could be partly due to differences in the number of older adults in each area, with the Northeast possibly having a higher proportion of older adults, the researchers said. Older adults are at increased risk for C. difficile infection. In fact, the overall rate of C. difficile infections during the study was 160 cases per 10,000 hospital discharges among adults age 65 and older, compared with 35 cases per 10,000 discharges in adults under 65 and 12 cases per 10,000 discharges in children.

"Our findings indicate the need for additional resources when and where health care burdens are highest," the researchers said.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, is published in the May issue of the American Journal of Infection Control.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.