Overcoming the Ick Factor

by Judith Lavelle

A new treatment reminds us that pushing past squeamishness can be a medical necessity.


Over the past few days, a good amount of Twitter users, a few of my Facebook friends and apparently NPR have embraced the charming phrase “frozen poop pills” to describe a promising new treatment for Clostridium difficile infections. The capsules, which indeed contain frozen human feces, have helped a small sample of patients overcome the chronic diarrhea that can prove fatal to many C. diff sufferers and that has become increasingly difficult to manage with antibiotics.

As exciting as this progress is, hope and excitement haven’t exactly been the only reactions people have had. When The New York Times reported the story, I was struck by what one C. diff patient, identified simply as “Deirdre,” had to say about the life-saving cure:

“If this is a treatment that was 90 percent effective and you can get over the gross factor, it seems to be kind of a no-brainer.”

— “A Promising Pill, Not So Hard to Swallow” by Pam Belluck

Well put. In some ways, this new pill represents an interesting set back for an evolved response. Most human beings are disgusted by certain bodily fluids and creepy insects because that revulsion keeps us safe. Were we to normally sample human waste or even let disease-carrying rodents dwell in our homes, we would be more likely to pick up nasty germs. In this case, modern medicine has turned the tables: let your revulsion call the shots, and those germs might get the best of you. But are these “frozen poop pills” alone? Not at all. Patients and doctors have had to employ their higher faculties and push past squeamishness throughout the history of medicine.

A maggot illustration from the "The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal" (1858).

A maggot illustration from the “The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal” (1858).

Granted, some treatments–like urine baths for bad skin or consuming rotten mice to stop bedwetting–have fallen out of favor for being unsubstantiated as well as unsavory. But other “gross” treatments are very much in use. For example, doctors sometimes prescribe “fecal transplants” for particularly stubborn cases of antibiotic-resistant C. diff. Just like the pills, these enemas of donated fecal matter help restore healthy gut bacteria… but they don’t make for good table conversation.

Likewise, the medicinal properties of some creepy crawly animals may be able to step in when more traditional cures fall short. Maggots can be surprisingly adept at clearing dead, infection-prone tissue from healing wounds, and with antibiotic resistance on the rise, perhaps we’ll be seeing more of them. Leeches, too, can be useful; in rare but demonstrated cases, surgeons employ them to suck on the area of operation, and the leeches’ natural secretions prevent blood clots from forming.

"Leech dance." by Flickr user Thejaswi

“Leech dance.” by Flickr user Thejaswi

Even if you find anti-clotting leeches or “frozen poop pills” unbelievably disgusting or even darkly amusing, I think you have to agree they’re a testament to the medical community’s commitment and creativity. And after all–it’s a give and take. Sure, feces capsules might turn your stomach… but they might save your life.


One thought on “Overcoming the Ick Factor

  1. The use of leeches in medicine is not new but the poop pills, certainly a new age we are in. I have to agree however, having seen a close friend go through months of runny stool and little eating due to loss of large intestine flora because of antibiotic use – poop pill would have been a welcome relief if they stopped his hourly trips to the loo!


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