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October 23, 2013

Consumer Reports: Can good bacteria fight growing medical threat?

A serious infection that has been on the rise in hospital patients is now being increasingly reported among people who work or spend time in health care settings, such as a doctor's office or clinic, Consumer Reports On Health warns. Caused by the bacterium Clostridium difficile, also known as C-diff, the infection can cause chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain and intestinal inflammation, which in severe cases can be life-threatening.

The problem often affects hospitalized patients treated with antibiotics, which not only kill harmful bacteria but also can destroy protective ones, allowing C-diff to gain a foothold. But new research suggests that the bugs are now also infecting people outside hospital settings, including some who haven't taken antibiotics. In a study of 984 people with C-diff published online June 17 in JAMA Internal Medicine, about 60 percent had taken antibiotics within the previous 12 weeks — but more than 80 percent had been to some type of health care clinic.

While the odds of contracting a C-diff infection are low overall (about 1 in 100 for someone admitted to a hospital, and much lower for others), the consequences can be serious. That's especially true because the bacterium has been evolving into increasingly virulent strains that can resist drug treatment.

So how can you protect yourself from this threat? Research is finding that the answer might lie in probiotics — helpful bacteria that live in the human gut. A growing body of evidence suggests that those trillions of microorganisms play a critical role in defending us from illness, and that taking supplemental doses of probiotics might help prevent infections like C-diff by restoring the balance of "good bugs" in the gut.

HELPFUL BACTERIA

Found in pills, powders and fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir, probiotics are often said to help "balance" our internal microbial communities, or microbiome, by providing an infusion of health-promoting bugs that support the body's optimal functioning. Boosts may be especially important at times when our native bacteria are under assault from antibiotics.

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