Hospitals are now plagued by another source of hospital-acquired infection, putting health workers and patients at risk, says British researchers.

Clostridium difficile, a germ that causes deadly intestinal infections in hospital patients, has long been thought to be spread only by contact with contaminated surfaces. But a new study finds that it can also travel through the air.

The bug is commonly spread by contact with infected feces, and the British scientists said the new study made it even more urgent to isolate hospital patients with diarrhea as soon as possible - even before tests confirm a C. difficile infection.

C.difficile is a bacterium known to be resistant to many antibiotics.

People in good health are rarely infected. But broad-spectrum antibiotics can wipe out the bacteria that normally live in the intestines, allowing C. difficile to flourish. Hospitalized people on antibiotics and the elderly, even when not taking medicine, are at high risk.

Health care workers who touch contaminated feces can spread the disease by direct contact with other people or just by touching objects. The spores are resistant to disinfectants and can survive in open areas for months.

The bacterium produces toxins that can cause fever, nausea, abdominal pain, severe diarrhea - and sometimes colitis, a serious inflammation of the large intestine.

Treatment involves replacing the broad-spectrum antibiotics with other antibiotics, usually vancomycin or metronidazole.

However, the amounts of C. difficile found in the air were generally modest suggesting a low level of airborne contamination.

Dr. Mark H. Wilcox, a professor of medical microbiology at the University of Leeds said C.difficile can be prevented through washing with just soap and water.

For everyone in a hospital, staff or patients, he said, the chief thing is optimal hand hygiene.