Cystic fibrosis is a disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs, digestive tract, and other areas of the body. It is one of the most common chronic lung diseases in children and young adults. It is a life-threatening disorder.
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a disease that is passed down through families. It is caused by a defective gene that makes the body produce abnormally thick and sticky fluid, called mucus. This mucus builds up in the breathing passages of the lungs and in the pancreas.
The buildup of mucus results in life-threatening lung infections and serious digestion problems. The disease may also affect the sweat glands and a man's reproductive system.
Millions of Americans carry a CF gene, but do not have symptoms. This is because a person with CF must inherit two defective genes, one from each parent. About 1 in 29 Caucasian Americans have the CF gene. It is more common among those of northern or central European descent.
Most children with CF are diagnosed by age 2. For a small number, the disease is not detected until age 18 or older. These children often have a milder form of the disease.
Symptoms in newborns may include:
Symptoms related to bowel function may include:
Symptoms related to the lungs and sinuses may include:
Symptoms that may be noticed later in life:
Exams and Tests
A blood test is available to help detect CF. The test looks for changes in a gene known to cause the disease. Other tests used to diagnose CF include:
Other tests that identify problems that can be related to cystic fibrosis include:
An early diagnosis of CF and treatment plan can improve both survival and quality of life. Follow-up and monitoring are very important. When possible, patients should get care at a cystic fibrosis specialty clinic. When children reach adulthood, they should transfer to a cystic fibrosis specialty center for adults.
Treatment for lung problems includes:
Lung problems are also treated with therapies to thin the mucus. This makes it easier cough the mucus out of the lungs.
These methods include:
Treatment for bowel and nutritional problems may include:
Care and monitoring at home should include:
You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cystic fibrosis support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help your family to not feel alone.
Most children with cystic fibrosis stay in good health until they reach adulthood. They are able to take part in most activities and attend school. Many young adults with cystic fibrosis finish college or find jobs.
Lung disease eventually worsens to the point where the person is disabled. Today, the average life span for people with CF who live to adulthood is about 37 years.
Death is most often caused by lung complications.
The most common complication is chronic respiratory infection.
Other complications include:
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if an infant or child has symptoms of cystic fibrosis.
Call your health care provider if a person with cystic fibrosis develops new symptoms or if symptoms get worse, particularly severe breathing difficulty or coughing up blood.
Call your health care provider if you or your child experiences:
Cystic fibrosis cannot be prevented. Screening those with a family history of the disease may detect the cystic fibrosis gene in many carriers.
Accurso FJ. Cystic fibrosis. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 89.
Egan M. Cystic fibrosis. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW III, et al., eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 395.
Review Date: 5/14/2014
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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