One of the most difficult parts of health care for some nurses is dealing with bodily fluids.

This becomes even more problematic when the fluids are smelly.

Easily the most dreaded patient diagnosis on any hospital floor, C. diff is well-known in the nursing world for its foul odor.

What Does C. Diff Smell Like?

You will find that every nurse has a slightly different way of describing the odor associated with C. diff. Once you smell it for yourself, you will never forget the scent.

You might describe it as rotten milk or a decaying animal. Others state that C. diff patients have a perpetually sulfurous smell even after being cleaned.

How Can You Deal with C. Diff’s Smell?

There’s no way to completely eliminate the smell of C. diff from a patient that has been diagnosed with this bacterial infection.

There are some ways you can combat the smell so you can remain professional and kind while helping your patient.

A conscious patient with C. diff knows how bad she smells, and you will not want to make her feel even worse with words or facial expressions displaying your disgust.

What Is C. Diff?

man in pain

C. diff stands for a type of bacteria found in the colon and is more properly known as Clostridium difficile.

When normal, healthy bacterial levels are disrupted within the colon, this unhealthy bacteria can take over, causing pain and very smelly diarrhea.

Without proper treatment, it could even become deadly or cause permanent colon damage. However, antibiotics, frequently given in the hospital setting, can effectively treat most cases.

C. diff can be easily spread through spores in the air or via spores that land on surrounding surfaces. These spores can live for quite some time outside the body.

Because of this, health care workers wear masks, gloves and gowns when helping patients who have been diagnosed with C. diff.

What Causes C. Diff?

What Causes C. Diff
A breakdown of what may cause c-diff.

C. diff spores enter patients through their mouths after the individual breathes in the spores or picks them up from surfaces, feces, or even food.

Those who are most at risk for C. diff include the following:

  • Elderly individuals
  • Those taking antibiotics
  • Those with recent stays in hospitals or long-term care facilities
  • Those with inflammatory bowel disease
  • Those with weakened immune systems
  • Those with kidney disease

How Common Is C. Diff in Health Care Settings?

C. diff is surprisingly common in hospitals with many of the cases originating from the hospital stay itself.

In fact, in a 2020 review of 13 related studies, researchers found that the incidence rate of C. diff was 8.3 cases per every 10,000 patient days.

However, the health care setting most likely to see C. diff infections occur and spread is a nursing home.

Several years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States stated that close to 250,000 citizens had been diagnosed with C. diff in the previous year.

Among this number, nearly 40 percent of the individuals were patients in nursing homes.

The vast majority of the remaining patients were hospital patients or individuals who had recently been discharged from a health care facility. Unfortunately, C. diff costs the United States nearly $5 billion per year.

What Odor Does C. Diff Have?

While these research numbers are certainly astounding, what affects nurses the most is not the sheer number of individuals with C. diff nor the amount this bacterial infection costs health care systems and insurance companies every year.

Instead, it is the odor that can make nursing care difficult for even the most compassionate of nurses.

I have heard the scent described in a variety of ways by other nurses, including as an odor similar to manure, an uncleaned outhouse, rotten meat, baby poop, and even decaying fish.

Unfortunately, this odor does not go away even after a thorough cleaning of the patient, bathroom, and affected linens.

The odor tends to linger in the air of the patient’s room and even on you after you leave the room and take off your gown. You may even feel as if you can still smell it once you go home for the day.

Think of this as your reminder to wash your scrubs immediately when you arrive home to get rid of any lingering spores.

How Can You Deal with C. Diff’s Odor?

Although there is no way to completely get rid of the odor you may smell when caring for a C. diff patient, there are some things you can do minimize your repugnance.

For example, the most common option on the floor where I worked was to spread some beneath your nose before masking up and heading into the patient’s room.

Here are a few other options that other nurses have tried with at least some success.

  • Clean up bowel movements of these patients quickly.
  • Try breathing through your mouth rather than your nose.
  • Wear two masks rather than one.
  • Roll on essential oils, such as peppermint, under your nose.
  • Think about a pleasant place or experience as you clean up your patient.
  • Put a bowl of coffee grounds in the patient’s room to absorb foul odors.

The video below will also give you some good ideas for dealing with C. diff odors and many other bad smells you may experience as a nurse.

Final Thoughts About Dealing With C. Diff

While C. diff is terrible for you to have to smell, it is also an embarrassment and a serious health problem for your patients diagnosed with it.

Comment below with any solutions you have used for dealing with C. diff odors at your job.

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