How Is a Person's Life Affected By Cystic Fibrosis?

Reviewed on 12/10/2020

What is cystic fibrosis?

Persons with cystic fibrosis can experience lung problems, digestive issues, infertility, fever, night sweats, jaundice, and sinus infections.
Persons with cystic fibrosis can experience lung problems, digestive issues, infertility, fever, night sweats, jaundice, and sinus infections.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disease in which the mucus in the lungs and digestive system becomes thicker and stickier than usual. This leads to chronic lung and digestive issues.

Symptoms of cystic fibrosis

Lung problems

People with CF often have a frequent cough with phlegm. They get frequent lung infections like pneumonia because the sticky mucus traps germs. They may feel short of breath or wheeze on a regular basis.

The lack of oxygen can cause clubbing of the fingers and toes. With clubbing, the ends of the fingers appear bloated and the fingernails could be deformed. Luckily, once the lack of oxygen is addressed, clubbing often goes away on its own. 

Digestive issues

People with CF may have greasy, large bowel movements more frequently than normal. Conversely, they may be prone to intestinal blockages or constipation. Due to thick mucus in the digestive system, they may not gain weight or have adequate nutrition despite eating a normal amount of food. This can cause delayed growth and development in children.

Other signs of cystic fibrosis

Causes of cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is caused by a genetic mutation that parents pass to their children. There are over 1700 variations of the mutation, which may make it hard to diagnose adults as carriers.

People who have two copies of this gene get cystic fibrosis. People who have only one copy of this gene -- carriers -- do not have cystic fibrosis but could pass it on to their children if they have a child with another carrier.

Diagnosis/tests for cystic fibrosis

Most people get a diagnosis by age two, due to the progressive nature of the disease. However, some people with a less severe version of cystic fibrosis may not get a diagnosis until their teenage years.

To diagnose CF, doctors will perform the following tests:

Sweat test

People with cystic fibrosis have higher levels of salt in their sweat. So, doctors test sweat to see how much salt is in it. If your sweat has over 60 millimoles per liter of chloride, then you may have cystic fibrosis. However, this alone is not enough, so doctors will perform these other tests listed to make a clear diagnosis.

Genetic testing

Doctors may test both a child and their parents for cystic fibrosis genes. Testing the child can confirm the presence of two CF genes. Testing the parents can confirm if both are a carrier, and may help them with future family planning decisions.

However, the genetic carrier tests available only test for the most common mutations. So, it's possible for someone to be a carrier but still test negative for the gene.

Doctors usually offer carrier testing to pregnant people and couples who are thinking of having children. If someone in your family has CF, you are at higher risk of having a child with cystic fibrosis and should get tested.

Sometimes, doctors perform genetic testing for cystic fibrosis on infants while they are still in utero.

Pancreatic testing

The buildup of mucus in the digestive system often prevents the pancreas from releasing important digestive enzymes in people with CF. Doctors may test the stool for the enzyme chymotrypsin to see if a cystic fibrosis diagnosis is likely.

They may also test your stool for elastase, another digestive enzyme.

Another pancreatic test is a blood test for trypsinogen -- a precursor to a digestive enzyme created by the pancreas.

Treatments for cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is a complex disease and each case is different. So, treatment may be different for each person.

There is currently no cure for CF. However, people with it are living longer than previously with advances in treatment. In the 1950s, many children with the disease didn't live to school age. Now, the current average lifespan for people with cystic fibrosis is 44.

Treatments to manage the condition include:

Airway clearance

Keeping the airways clear is an important aspect of CF management. This prevents infections and helps people breathe. People with CF work with specialists to learn particular breathing and coughing techniques.

There are also assistive devices like vibrating vests to help clear mucus. In some cases, parents bang on a child's chest and back to break up mucus.

Infection management

People with CF get frequent lung infections. Doctors may use antibiotics to proactively prevent infections, or use them to treat current infections.

They may also take a sputum culture -- a test in which a person coughs to produce mucus to test -- to detect exactly which bacteria is causing the most current infection.

Medications

In addition to antibiotics, other medications may help people with CF, including:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • CTFR modulators (medicines that work on the protein affected by the genetic mutation that causes CF)
  • Medicines to thin mucus

Lung transplant

People with severe cases of cystic fibrosis may benefit from a lung transplant.

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References
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: "About Cystic Fibrosis."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Cystic Fibrosis."

Mount Sinai: "Clubbing of the fingers or toes."

Medline Plus: "Cystic Fibrosis."

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: "Carrier Testing for Cystic Fibrosis."

Lab Tests Online: "Chymotrypsin."

Medline Plus: "Stool Elastase."

Lab Tests Online: "Immunoreactive Trypsinogen (IRT)."

Medline Plus: "Cystic fibrosis."

KidsHealth: "Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Respiratory Screen: Sputum."

University of Wisconsin-Madison: "Cystic Fibrosis (CF)."

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