Clostridium difficile epidemiology has changed in recent years, with the emergence of highly virulent types associated with severe infections, high rates of recurrences and mortality. Antibiotic resistance plays an important role in driving these epidemiological changes and the emergence of new types. While clindamycin resistance was driving historical endemic types, new types are associated with resistance to fluoroquinolones. Furthermore, resistance to multiple antibiotics is a common feature of the newly emergent strains and, in general, of many epidemic isolates. A reduced susceptibility to antibiotics used for C. difficile infection (CDI) treatment, in particular to metronidazole, has recently been described in several studies. Furthermore, an increased number of strains show resistance to rifamycins, used for the treatment of relapsing CDI. Several mechanisms of resistance have been identified in C. difficile, including acquisition of genetic elements and alterations of the antibiotic target sites. The C. difficile genome contains a plethora of mobile genetic elements, many of them involved in antibiotic resistance. Transfer of genetic elements among C. difficile strains or between C. difficile and other bacterial species can occur through different mechanisms that facilitate their spread. Investigations of the fitness cost in C. difficile indicate that both genetic elements and mutations in the molecular targets of antibiotics can be maintained regardless of the burden imposed on fitness, suggesting that resistances may persist in the C. difficile population also in absence of antibiotic selective pressure. The rapid evolution of antibiotic resistance and its composite nature complicate strategies in the treatment and prevention of CDI. The rapid identification of new phenotypic and genotypic traits, the implementation of effective antimicrobial stewardship and infection control programs, and the development of alternative therapies are needed to prevent and contain the spread of resistance and to ensure an efficacious therapy for CDI.
Keywords: Clostridium difficile; antimicrobial susceptibility; clindamycin; fluoroquinolones; metronidazole; mobile genetic elements; multidrug resistance; rifamycins.