antibiotic-associated colitis

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Antibiotic-Associated Colitis



Antibiotic-associated colitis is an inflammation of the intestines that sometimes occurs following antibiotic treatment and is caused by toxins produced by the bacterium Clostridium difficile.


Antibiotic-associated colitis, also called antibiotic-associated enterocolitis, can occur following antibiotic treatment. The bacteria Clostridia difficile are normally found in the intestines of 5% of healthy adults, but people can also pick up the bacteria while they are in a hospital or nursing home. In a healthy person, harmless resident intestinal bacteria compete with each other for food and places to "sit" along the inner intestinal wall. When antibiotics are given, most of the resident bacteria are killed. With fewer bacteria to compete with, the normally harmless Clostridia difficile grow rapidly and produce toxins. These toxins damage the inner wall of the intestines and cause inflammation and diarrhea.
Although all antibiotics can cause this disease, it is most commonly caused by clindamycin (Cleocin), ampicillin (Omnipen), amoxicillin (Amoxil, Augmentin, or Wymox), and any in the cephalosporin class (such as cefazolin or cephalexin). Symptoms of the condition can occur during antibiotic treatment or within four weeks after the treatment has stopped.
In approximately half of cases of antibiotic-associated colitis, the condition progresses to a more severe form of colitis called pseudomembranous enterocolitis in which pseudomembranes are excreted in the stools. Pseudomembranes are membrane-like collections of white blood cells, mucus, and the protein that causes blood to clot (fibrin) that are released by the damaged intestinal wall.

Causes and symptoms

Antibiotic-associated colitis is caused by toxins produced by the bacterium Clostridium difficile after treatment with antibiotics. When most of the other intestinal bacteria have been killed, Clostridium difficile grows rapidly and releases toxins that damage the intestinal wall. The disease and symptoms are caused by these toxins, not by the bacterium itself.
Symptoms of antibiotic-associated colitis usually begin four to ten days after antibiotic treatment has begun. The early signs and symptoms of this disease include lower abdominal cramps, an increased need to pass stool, and watery diarrhea. As the disease progresses, the patient may experience a general ill feeling, fatigue, abdominal pain, and fever. If the disease proceeds to pseudomembranous enterocolitis, the patient may also experience nausea, vomiting, large amounts of watery diarrhea, and a very high fever (104-105°F/40-40.5°C). Complications of antibiotic-associated colitis include severe dehydration, imbalances in blood minerals, low blood pressure, fluid accumulation in deep skin (edema), enlargement of the large intestine (toxic megacolon), and the formation of a tear (perforation) in the wall of the large intestine.
The Clostridium difficile toxin is found in the stools of persons older than 60 years of age 20-100 times more frequently than in the stools of persons who are 10-20 years old. As a result, the elderly are much more prone to developing antibiotic-associated colitis than younger individuals.


Antibiotic-associated colitis can be diagnosed by the symptoms and recent medical history of the patient, by a laboratory test for the bacterial toxin, and/or by using a procedure called endoscopy.

Key terms

Colitis — Inflammation of the colon.
Edema — Fluid accumulation in a tissue.
Endoscopy — A procedure in which a thin, lighted instrument is inserted into the interior of a hollow organ, such as the rectum and used to visually inspect the inner intestinal lining.
Fibrin — A fibrous blood protein vital to coagulation and blood clot formation.
Rectum — The last part of the intestine. Stool passes through the rectum and out through the anal opening.
Toxic megacolon — Acute enlargement or dilation of the large intestine.
If the diarrhea and related symptoms occurred after the patient received antibiotics, antibiotic-associated colitis may be suspected. A stool sample may be analyzed for the presence of the Clostridium difficile toxin. This toxin test is the preferred diagnostic test for antibiotic-associated colitis. One frequently used test for the toxin involves adding the processed stool sample to a human cell culture. If the toxin is present in the stool sample, the cells die. It may take up to two days to get the results from this test. A simpler test, which provides results in two to three hours, is also available. Symptoms and toxin test results are usually enough to diagnose the disease.
Another tool that may be useful in the diagnosis of antibiotic-associated colitis, however, is a procedure called an endoscopy that involves inserting a thin, lighted tube into the rectum to visually inspect the intestinal lining. Two different types of endoscopy procedures, the sigmoidoscopy and the colonoscopy, are used to view different parts of the large intestine. These procedures are performed in a hospital or doctor's office. Patients are sedated during the procedure to make them more comfortable and are allowed to go home after recovering from the sedation.


Diarrhea, regardless of the cause, is always treated by encouraging the individual to replace lost fluids and prevent dehydration. One method to treat antibiotic-associated colitis is to simply stop taking the antibiotic that caused the disease. This allows the normal intestinal bacteria to repopulate the intestines and inhibits the overgrowth of Clostridium difficile. Many patients with mild disease respond well to this and are free from diarrhea within two weeks. It is important, however, to make sure that the original disease for which the antibiotics were prescribed is treated.
Because of the potential seriousness of this disease, most patients are given another antibiotic to control the growth of the Clostridium difficile, usually vancomycin (Vancocin) or metronidazole (Flagyl or Protostat). Both are designed to be taken orally four times a day for 10-14 days. Upon finishing antibiotic treatment, approximately 15-20% of patients will experience a relapse of diarrhea within one to five weeks. Mild relapses can go untreated with great success, however, severe relapses of diarrhea require another round of antibiotic treatment. Instead of further antibiotic treatment, a cholestyramine resin (Questran or Prevalite) may be given. The bacterial toxins produced in the intestine stick to the resin and are passed out with the resin in the stool. Unfortunately, however, vancomycin also sticks to the resin, so these two drugs cannot be taken at the same time. Serious disease may require hospitalization so that the patient can be monitored, treated, and rehydrated.

Alternative treatment

The goal of alternative treatment for antibiotic-associated enterocolitis is to repopulate the intestinal environment with microorganisms that are normal and healthy for the intestinal tract. These microorgansisms then compete for space and keep the Clostridium difficile from over-populating.
Several types of supplements can be used. Supplements containing Lactobacillus acidophilus, the bacteria commonly found in yogurt and some types of milk, Lactobacillus bifidus, and Streptococcus faecium, are available in many stores in powder, capsule, tablet, and liquid form. Acidophilus also acts as a mild antibiotic, which helps it to reestablish itself in the intestine, and all may aid in the production of some B vitamins and vitamin K. These supplements can be taken individually and alternated weekly or together following one or more courses of antibiotics.


With appropriate treatment and replenishment of fluids, the prognosis is generally excellent. One or more relapses can occur. Very severe colitis can cause a tear (perforation) in the wall of the large intestine that would require major surgery. Perforation of the intestine can cause a serious abdominal infection. Antibiotic-associated colitis can be fatal in people who are elderly and/or have a serious underlying illness, such as cancer.


There are no specific preventative measures for this disease. Good general health can reduce the chance of developing a bacterial infection that would require antibiotic treatment and the chance of picking up the Clostridia bacteria. Maintaining good general health can also reduce the seriousness and length of the condition, should it develop following antibiotic therapy.



Mayo Clinic Online. March 5, 1998.


inflammation of the colon. There are many types of colitis, each with different etiologies; the differential diagnosis involves the clinical history, stool examinations, sigmoidoscopy, and radiologic studies such as a lower gastrointestinal series. One of the most common types is idiopathic ulcerative colitis, which is characterized by extensive ulcerations along the mucosa and submucosa of the bowel. Other types often can be traced to such etiologic factors as bacteria and viruses, drugs such as antibiotics, and radiation from x-rays or radioactive materials. Strong emotions can cause hypermotility of the gut and thereby produce symptoms typical of colitis. True colitis should be distinguished from irritable bowel syndrome (formerly referred to by other names such as mucous colitis, irritable colon, and spastic colon); in the latter condition there is no actual inflammation of the gastrointestinal mucosa. Almost all forms of colitis cause lower abdominal pain, bleeding from the bowel, and diarrhea. The patient may have as many as 20 bowel movements a day, resulting in serious depletion of body fluids and electrolytes. Treatment is aimed at eliminating or mitigating the underlying cause of the inflammatory process, resting and soothing the inflamed bowel, and restoring the nutritional status and fluid and electrolyte balance to normal.
antibiotic-associated colitis colitis associated with antimicrobial therapy, most commonly with lincomycin or clindamycin, but also with other broad-spectrum antibiotics, such as ampicillin and tetracycline. It can range from mild nonspecific colitis and diarrhea to severe fulminant pseudomembranous colitis with profuse watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. The inflammation may be caused by a toxin produced by Clostridium difficile, a microorganism that is normally present in the resident bowel flora of infants, but is rarely found in adults. Presumably, the disruption of the normal flora allows the growth of C. difficile.
collagenous colitis a type of colitis of unknown etiology characterized by deposits of collagenous material beneath the epithelium of the colon, with crampy abdominal pain and watery diarrhea.
Crohn's colitis Crohn's disease.
diversion colitis inflammation in a nonfunctioning colonic pouch created by corrective surgery; it resolves following restoration of intestinal continuity.
ischemic colitis acute vascular insufficiency of the colon, usually involving the portion supplied by the inferior mesenteric artery; symptoms include pain at the left iliac fossa, bloody diarrhea, low-grade fever, abdominal distention, and abdominal tenderness. The classic radiologic sign is thumbprinting, due to localized elevation of the mucosa by submucosal hemorrhage or edema. Ulceration may follow.
pseudomembranous colitis a severe acute inflammation of the bowel mucosa, with the formation of pseudomembranous plaques; it is usually associated with antimicrobial therapy (antibiotic-associated colitis). The common symptoms are watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. The pathologic lesions are yellow-green pseudomembranous plaques of mucinous inflammatory exudate distributed in patches over the colonic mucosa and sometimes also in the small intestine. Called also pseudomembranous enterocolitis.
radiation colitis colitis resulting from radiation therapy to the abdominal region; it is manifested clinically by tenesmus, pain, rectal bleeding, diarrhea, and telangiectases. Malabsorption, ulceration, and partial or complete obstruction may follow.
ulcerative colitis see ulcerative colitis.

pseudomembranous colitis endoscopy prognosis

An acute illness with often severe diarrhoea that follows therapy with ampicillin, clindamycin, metronidazole, and other broad-spectrum antibiotics which eliminate the patient’s native bacterial flora, resulting in superinfection by Clostridium difficile (which causes most cases). It may occur in compromised hosts or the elderly, in a background of colonic obstruction, leukaemia, major surgery, uraemia, spinal injury, colorectal cancer, burns, infections, shock, heavy-metal poisoning, haemolytic-uremic syndrome, ischaemia, Crohn’s disease, shigellosis, necrotising enterocolitis, or Hirschsprung’s disease.
Clinical findings
Ranges from asymptomatic, to mild diarrhoea and abdominal pain, to fulminant colitis with fever, increased white cells, vomiting, dehydration, perforation, peritonitis, shock.

Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, colonic perforation, toxic megacolon.

Ischaemic colitis with pseudomembtanes, fibrosis of the lamina propria with hyalinisation due to ischaemia, mucosal haemorrhage, full-thickness mucosal necrosis, microthrombi.

Inflammation, friable yellow membranes on surface.

Fluid and electrolyte support; discontinue antibiotics, treat with vancomycin.

Up to 20% of cases recur.

Pseudomembranous colitis lesion types
Type 1: Epithelial cell necrosis and acute inflammation of intercryptal interface; no damage to crypt neck or deep crypt.

Type 2: 50% of cases; classic eruptive (”volcano”) exudate; damage to crypt neck and deeper crypts.

Type 3: Full-thickness mucosal necrosis.

antibiotic-associated colitis

Pseudomembranous colitis, see there.

antibiotic-associated colitis

Inflammation of the colon, with diarrhoea, as a result of the change in the normal bacterial flora of the colon from the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Many cases are due to the overgrowth of Clostridium difficile an organism that produces an irritating toxin.


pl. colitides; inflammation of the colon. There are many types of colitis, each having different etiologies. The differential diagnosis involves the clinical history, fecal examinations, proctoscopy, radiological studies such as barium enemas, and sometimes biopsy.

antibiotic-associated colitis
colitis associated with antimicrobial therapy occurs in humans and animals. It can range from mild nonspecific colitis and diarrhea to severe fulminant pseudomembranous colitis (see below) with profuse watery diarrhea. The inflammation may be caused by a toxin produced by Clostridium difficile, a microorganism that is not normally present in the resident bowel flora. Presumably, the disruption of the normal flora allows the growth of C. difficile. There is developing evidence that, in foals and adult horses, C. difficile can be associated with diarrheal disease that can vary from mild to self-limiting to an acute and fatal enterocolitis. Evidence for this association is the biological plausibility, some evidence that this syndrome can be reproduced experimentally, and the ability to demonstrate the organism or its toxin in the feces of horses with the enterocolitis in comparison with the low prevalence and absence of toxin in the feces of non-diarrheic horses. This syndrome commonly occurs in horses following antimicrobial therapy and/or hospitalization. It is possible that enterotoxin from intestinal C. perfringens may also contribute in horses and the syndrome has been called equine clostridiosis.
ciliate colitis
colitis in primates caused by Troglodytella spp. and characterized by diarrhea.
colitis cystica profunda
dilated, grossly visible colonic glands protrude through the muscularis mucosae into the submucosa; no specific cause attributed; an incidental necropsy finding, especially in pigs.
eosinophilic ulcerative colitis
occurs in humans and dogs, either as a primary disease or as part of an eosinophilic gastroenteritis. Characterized histologically by eosinophilic infiltration of the lamina propria and submucosa. May be caused by hypersensitivity reactions, parasites or foreign body reactions.
granulomatous colitis
see histiocytic ulcerative colitis (below).
histiocytic ulcerative colitis
a chronic, debilitating inflammation of the colon occurring predominantly in young Boxer dogs. Affected dogs have a chronic hemorrhagic diarrhea with tenesmus, and occasionally vomiting, inappetence and weight loss. Colonic mucosa is thickened, friable and ulcerated. Macrophages containing PAS-positive granules are found in the mucosa and submucosa. The cause of this disease is unknown. It is similar, but not identical to, ulcerative colitis, granulomatous colitis and Whipple's disease of humans.
idiopathic colitis
a disease similar to histiocytic ulcerative colitis (above), occurring predominantly in dogs other than Boxers and lacking the PAS-positive granules in histiocytes.
mucous colitis
see irritable colon syndrome.
plasmacytic-lymphocytic colitis
mucosal infiltration by plasmacytes and lymphocytes associated with sign of colitis in dogs. Dietary hypersensitivity is considered an important cause.
pseudomembranous colitis
a severe acute inflammation of the bowel mucosa, with the formation of pseudomembranous plaques. It is most commonly associated with antimicrobial therapy (see antibiotic-associated colitis (above)). Called also pseudomembranous enterocolitis.
psychologically induced colitis
see irritable colon syndrome.
uremic colitis
an outstanding lesion in cattle dying of uremia.
a peracute colitis of horses, sometimes occurring as outbreaks, characterized by a short course of about 24 hours, profuse diarrhea, sometimes with colic and dysentery and profound dehydration. The cause is unknown and the outcome invariably fatal.
References in periodicals archive ?
Evoclin is contraindicated in individuals with a history of hypersensitivity to preparations containing clindamycin or lincomycin, a history of regional enteritis or ulcerative colitis, or a history of antibiotic-associated colitis.
Nearly all antibiotics, including Augmentin ES-600, may cause antibiotic-associated colitis (severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever) -- so patients should consult their doctor if any of these occur.
difficile), which is a major cause of antibiotic-associated colitis, a condition common in hospitals and nursing homes.
The lead product in clinical development is OPHD001, an oral formulation of antibodies to treat intestinal infections due to Clostridium difficile, a major cause of antibiotic-associated colitis.

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