Although Clostridium difficile is widely considered an antibiotic- and hospital-associated pathogen, recent evidence indicates that this is an insufficient depiction of the risks and reservoirs. A common thread that links all major risk factors of infection is their association with gastrointestinal disturbances, but this relationship to C. difficile colonization has never been tested directly. Here, we show that disturbances caused by diarrhoeal events trigger susceptibility to C. difficile colonization. Using survey data of the human gut microbiome, we detected C. difficile colonization and blooms in people recovering from food poisoning and Vibrio cholerae infections. Carriers remained colonized for year-long time scales and experienced highly variable patterns of C. difficile abundance, where increased shedding over short periods of 1-2 d interrupted week-long periods in which C. difficile was undetectable. Given that short shedding events were often linked to gastrointestinal disturbances, our results help explain why C. difficile is frequently detected as a co-infecting pathogen in patients with diarrhoea. To directly test the impact of diarrhoea on susceptibility to colonization, we developed a mouse model of variable disturbance intensity, which allowed us to monitor colonization in the absence of disease. As mice exposed to avirulent C. difficile spores ingested increasing quantities of laxatives, more individuals experienced C. difficile blooms. Our results indicate that the likelihood of colonization is highest in the days immediately following acute disturbances, suggesting that this could be an important window during which transmission could be interrupted and the incidence of infection lowered.