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Clostridium perfringens is from the family
of Clostridia, and as a family, they’re
obligate anaerobes, meaning they don’t require
oxygen to thrive, in fact, they’re better
off without it.
Anaerobes, clostridia included, tend to lack
the enzymes catalase or superoxide dismutase,
so oxygen is actually toxic to them.
In nature, they thrive in deep, compact soil,
and when they feel the stress of fresh oxygenated
air, they often produce spores, which are
extremely resilient to the environment, and
can even survive cooking.
When conditions improve, for example, when
food is slowly cooled or stored, the spores
can sprout into full-fledged Clostridia.
In fact, at an optimum temperature, Clostridium
perfringens has one of the fastest growing
rates of any bacterium!
In the lab, when doing a gram stain, Clostridium
perfringens is Gram-positive, or purple when
Gram stained, and look like big cylinders
or rods, also called bacilli.
Clostridium perfringens is a common cause
of food poisoning, in fact, it’s sometimes
called “the cafeteria germ”.
That’s because it typically infects food
that’s prepared in large quantities, and
then kept warm for prolonged periods, such
as in cafeterias or buffets.
Clostridium perfringens are found in the environment
and they can accidentally contaminate food
when it’s been left out for a while.
If a person eats food contaminated with C.
perfringens, the bacteria will soon colonize
Within 24 hours, the bacteria starts to make
clostridium perfringens enterotoxin, or CPE.
The CPE specifically targets the tight junctions
that connect epithelial cells lining the intestines
to one another.
When the tight junctions get destroyed, it
causes inflammation and compromises the structural
integrity of the intestinal wall.
Fortunately, CPE is heat labile, so prolonged
cooking at 72°C or above will inactivate
And that’s one reason why freshly cooked
food is best to eat – the other reason is
that it’s simply tastier that way!
But uncooked food – like salads, or reheated
food – like leftovers, can be a good home
to Clostridium perfringens.
The symptoms of Clostridium perfringens enteritis
include abdominal cramping, watery diarrhea,
Fortunately, most of these improve over the
course of a day, as the bacteria makes its
way through the intestines.
In terms of treatment, antibiotics aren’t
needed, and instead the goal is to keep the
individual well hydrated.
Now, instead of getting into food, Clostridium
perfringens can also sometimes get into a
This can happen when wounds are made by dirty,
sharp objects, that come into contact with
soil that’s rich with Clostridium perfringens
and other anaerobes, like gardening or farming
And if there’s a deep wound, it can cause
That’s where another toxin, Clostridium
perfringens alpha toxin, or CPAT, causes direct
damage to cells, causing them to swell up
and lyse – or pop.
The result is rapid, massive destruction of
muscular and soft tissues, eventually resulting
in tissue death or gangrene.
Symptoms of myonecrosis are extreme pain and
swelling, and sometimes thin, watery pus can
leak out of the wound.
Occasionally, there’s so much tissue damage
that blood vessels break and create blood
filled bullae on the skin above gangrenous
A classic sign is crepitus – which is the
sound of crackles as you press down around
It feels like gas moving around in the tissue,
which is why myonecrosis is sometimes called
The fast-moving infection and massive tissue
destruction can lead to fever and tachycardia,
and can even progress to hypotension, shock,
and eventually death – within just a few hours.
Clostridial myonecrosis can be hard to diagnose
early on, because it can look like cellulitis.
And since untreated gas gangrene can spread
rapidly, the diagnosis is usually made based
on the severity of the infection and on how
quickly it spreads.
Having said that, the diagnosis can be confirmed
with an anaerobic tissue culture, but that
usually takes a few days, which is far too
long for individuals with gas gangrene.
Treatment of clostridial myonecrosis requires
prompt and complete surgical excision of the
This can sometimes include amputation of an
Individuals typically need supportive care
to help manage fluids and maintain their hemodynamic
High dose antibiotic treatment with penicillin
V or clindamycin is also needed to kill the
Sometimes additional broad spectrum antibiotics
are used as well, especially in really ill-appearing
individuals, in case there’s a co-infection.
Sometimes hyperbaric oxygen is used.
That’s where a person is placed in a hyperbaric
chamber, which contains 100% oxygen, because
that amount of oxygen is deadly to Clostridium
perfringens and other anaerobes.
Alright, as a quick recap.
Clostridium perfringens is a gram-positive,
spore-forming, obligate anaerobe that resides
in the soil.
If it comes into contact with our food, it
can cause food poisoning through toxin production.
Clostridium perfringens food poisoning typically
causes mild symptoms, lasts about a day, and
resolves without antibiotics.
If Clostridium perfringens gets into an open
wound, it can cause clostridial myonecrosis,
or gas gangrene, which can be deadly within
hours without surgical excision of the necrotic
tissue, along with penicillin V and, in some
cases, hyperbaric therapy.