Pseudomembranous colitis: Spectrum of imaging findings with clinical and pathologic correlation

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Pseudomembranous colitis (PMC) is a potentially life-threatening acute infectious colitis caused by one or more toxins produced by an unopposed proliferation of Clostridium difficile bacteria. PMC is characterized by the presence of elevated, yellow-white plaques forming pseudomembranes on the colonic mucosa. These plaques can be visualized at both pathologic analysis and endoscopy. Plain radiography, contrast enema studies, and computed tomography (CT) are useful in the evaluation of PMC. Plain radiography of the abdomen can demonstrate polypoid mucosal thickening, "thumbprinting" (wide transverse bands associated with haustral fold thickening), or gaseous distention of the colon. A toxic megacolon with distention and occasionally pneumoperitoneum may be seen in the most severe cases of PMC involving perforation. At contrast enema studies, the primary finding in mild cases of PMC is small nodular filling defects representing the mucosal plaques. With more extensive colonic involvement, the plaques are larger and coalesce to form an irregular bowel wall margin. Mural thickening and wide haustral folds caused by intramural edema may also be seen. A contrast enema study is contraindicated in patients with severe PMC due to the danger of perforation. Common CT findings include wall thickening, low-attenuation mural thickening corresponding to mucosal and submucosal edema, the "accordion sign," the "target sign" ("double halo sign"), pericolonic stranding, and ascites. Familiarity with these imaging characteristics may allow early diagnosis and treatment and prevent progression to more serious pathologic conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)887-897
Number of pages11
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1999


  • Colitis, pseudomembranous, 75.2043, 75.263
  • Colon, CT, 75.12112

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging


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