Diseases & Conditions
Cystic fibrosis is a hereditary disease that causes certain glands to produce abnormal secretions, resulting in tissue and organ damage, especially in the lungs and the digestive tract.
Cystic fibrosis is caused by certain inherited genetic mutations that cause thick, sticky secretions to clog the lungs and other organs.
Typical symptoms include vomiting and abdominal bloating in newborns, poor weight gain, coughing, wheezing, and frequent respiratory tract infections.
The diagnosis is based on a sweat test.
Half of the people with this disease live to their late 30s.
Treatments include antibiotics, bronchodilators, drugs to thin lung secretions, chest therapy for respiratory problems, and supplements of pancreatic enzymes for digestive problems.
Some people benefit from lung transplantation.
Cystic fibrosis is the most common inherited disease leading to a shortened life span among white people in the United States. It occurs in about 1 of 3,300 white infants and in 1 of 15,300 black infants. It is rare in Asians. Cystic fibrosis is equally common among boys and girls.
Cystic Fibrosis: Not Just a Lung Disease
In the lungs, thick bronchial secretions block the small airways, which become inflamed. As the disease progresses, the bronchial walls thicken, the airways fill with infected secretions, areas of the lung contract, and lymph nodes enlarge. In the liver, thick secretions block the bile ducts. Obstruction may also occur in the gallbladder. In the pancreas, thick secretions may block the gland completely so that digestive enzymes cannot reach the intestine. In the small intestine, intestinal blockage (meconium ileus) can result from thick secretions and requires surgery in some newborns. The reproductive organs are affected by cystic fibrosis in various ways, often resulting in infertility in males. The sweat glands in the skin secrete fluid containing more salt than normal.
Abnormal Genes: Cystic fibrosis results when a person inherits two defective copies (mutations) of a particular gene. This gene controls the production of a protein that regulates the transport of chloride and sodium (salt) across cell membranes. Worldwide, about 3 of 100 white people carry one defective copy of the gene; thus, they are carriers but they themselves do not get sick. About 3 of 10,000 white people inherit two defective copies of the gene; thus, they develop cystic fibrosis. In these people, chloride and sodium transport is disrupted and dehydration and increased stickiness of secretions occur.
Abnormal Secretions: Cystic fibrosis affects many organs throughout the body and nearly all the glands that secrete fluids into a duct (exocrine glands). The organs most commonly affected are the lungs, the pancreas, the intestines, the liver and gall bladder, and the reproductive organs.
The lungs are normal at birth, but problems can develop at any time afterward as thick secretions begin to block the small airways (mucus plugging). The plugging leads to chronic bacterial infections and inflammation that cause permanent damage to the airways (termed bronchiectasis). These problems make breathing increasingly difficult and reduce the lungs' ability to transfer oxygen to the blood. People also have frequent bacterial respiratory tract infections.
Blockage of ducts in the pancreas prevents digestive enzymes from reaching the intestine. A lack of these enzymes leads to poor absorption of fats, proteins, and vitamins. This poor absorption, in turn, can lead to nutritional deficiencies and poor growth. Eventually, the pancreas can become scarred and no longer produce enough insulin, so some people develop diabetes.
The intestines can become blocked by thick secretions. This blockage is common immediately after birth (termed meconium ileus) but may occur later in life (distal intestinal obstruction syndrome).
The sweat glands secrete fluid containing more salt than normal, increasing the risk of dehydration.
About 15 to 20% of newborns who have cystic fibrosis have meconium ileus, which causes vomiting, abdominal enlargement (distention), and absence of bowel movements. Meconium ileus is sometimes complicated by perforation of the intestine, a dangerous condition causing peritonitis and, if untreated, shock and death. Some newborns have a twisting of the intestine on itself (volvulus) or incomplete development of the intestine. Newborns who have meconium ileus almost always develop other symptoms of cystic fibrosis later. Meconium can also temporarily obstruct the large intestine in some newborns with cystic fibrosis, so that a bowel movement may not occur in these newborns until 1 to 2 days after birth.
The first symptom of cystic fibrosis in an infant who does not have meconium ileus is often a delay in regaining birth weight or poor weight gain at 4 to 6 weeks of age. This poor weight gain is due to inadequate amounts of pancreatic enzymes. The infant has frequent, bulky, foul-smelling, oily stools and may have a bloated (distended) abdomen and small muscles. Without treatment, weight gain in infants and older children is slow despite a normal or large appetite.
Unless a diagnosis is made through newborn screening, about half the children with cystic fibrosis are first taken to the doctor because of frequent coughing, wheezing, and respiratory tract infections. Coughing, the most noticeable symptom, is often accompanied by gagging, vomiting, and disturbed sleep. Children may have difficulty breathing, wheezing, or both. As the disease progresses, symptoms tend to occur more frequently, the chest becomes barrel-shaped, and insufficient oxygen may make the fingers clubbed (see Symptoms and Diagnosis of Lung Disorders: Clubbing) and the nail beds bluish. Polyps may form in the nose. The sinuses may fill with thick secretions, leading to chronic or recurrent sinus infections.
Older children and adults with episodes of intestinal obstruction have abdominal pain, nausea, and sometimes vomiting.
When a child or adult with cystic fibrosis sweats excessively in hot weather or because of a fever, dehydration may result because of the increased loss of salt and water. A parent may notice the formation of salt crystals or even a salty taste on the child's skin.
Adolescents often have slowed growth, delayed puberty, and declining physical endurance. As the disease progresses, lung infection becomes a major problem. Recurrent bronchitis and pneumonia gradually destroy the lungs.
Complications: Inadequate absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E, and K—may lead to night blindness, rickets, anemia, and bleeding disorders. In about 20% of untreated infants and toddlers, the lining of the rectum protrudes through the anus, a condition called rectal prolapse. Infrequently, infants with cystic fibrosis who have been fed soy protein or hypoallergenic formula may develop anemia and swelling of the extremities, because they are not absorbing enough protein.
Complications in adolescents and adults with cystic fibrosis include a rupture of the small air sacs of the lung (alveoli) into the pleural space (the space between the lung and chest wall). This rupture can allow air to enter into this space (pneumothorax), which collapses the lung (see Pleural Disorders: Pneumothorax). Other complications include heart failure and massive or recurrent bleeding in the lungs.
About 17% of adults with cystic fibrosis develop insulin-dependent diabetes because the scarred pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin. The blockage of bile ducts by thick secretions can lead to inflammation of the liver and eventually to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) in about 5% of people with cystic fibrosis (see Fatty Liver, Cirrhosis, and Related Disorders: Cirrhosis). Cirrhosis may increase the pressure in the veins entering the liver (portal hypertension—see Manifestations of Liver Disease: Portal Hypertension), leading to enlarged, fragile veins at the lower end of the esophagus (esophageal varices), which can rupture and bleed profusely. In almost all people with cystic fibrosis, the gallbladder is small and filled with thick bile and does not function well. About 10% of people develop gallstones, but only a small percentage develops symptoms. Surgical removal of the gallbladder is rarely needed.
People with cystic fibrosis often have impaired reproductive function. Almost all men have a low sperm count (which makes them sterile) because one of the ducts of the testis (the vas deferens) has developed abnormally and blocks the passage of sperm. In women, cervical secretions are too thick, causing decreased fertility. Otherwise, sexual function is not affected. Women with cystic fibrosis have a higher likelihood of complications during pregnancy (such as developing a lung infection or diabetes), but many women with cystic fibrosis have given birth.
Other complications may include osteoporosis, arthritis, kidney stones, anemia, and an increased risk of cancer of the bile ducts and intestines.
If newborn screening is not done, the diagnosis of cystic fibrosis is usually confirmed in infancy or early childhood, but cystic fibrosis goes undetected until adolescence or early adulthood in about 10% of people with the disease.
The diagnosis is suggested by one or more of the typical symptoms and is confirmed by a sweat test. This test measures the amount of salt in sweat. The drug pilocarpine is placed on the skin to stimulate sweating, and filter paper or thin tubing is placed against the skin to collect the sweat. The concentration of salt in the sweat is then measured. A salt concentration higher than normal confirms the diagnosis in people who have symptoms of cystic fibrosis or who have a sibling with cystic fibrosis. Although the results of this test are valid any time after a newborn is 48 hours old, collecting a large enough sweat sample from a newborn younger than about 2 weeks old may be difficult. The sweat test, which can be performed on an outpatient basis, can also confirm the diagnosis in older children and young adults.
In newborns with cystic fibrosis, the level of the digestive enzyme, trypsin, in the blood is high. This enzyme level can be measured in a small drop of blood collected on a piece of filter paper. Measurement of this enzyme in combination with genetic testing is the basis of cystic fibrosis newborn screening programs performed in many parts of the world and in the United States. If the screening test is positive, newborns undergo sweat testing.
The diagnosis of cystic fibrosis can also be confirmed by genetic testing in a person who exhibits one or more typical symptoms or has a history of cystic fibrosis in a sibling. Finding two abnormal cystic fibrosis genes (mutations) confirms the diagnosis. However, because typical genetic testing does not look for all of the more than 1500 different kinds of cystic fibrosis mutations, failure to detect two mutations does not guarantee the person does not have cystic fibrosis. The disease can be diagnosed prenatally by performing genetic testing on the fetus using chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis (see Genetic Disorders Detection: Prenatal Diagnostic Testing).
Because cystic fibrosis can affect several organs, other tests may be helpful. If pancreatic enzyme levels are reduced, an analysis of the person's stool may reveal low or undetectable levels of the digestive enzymes elastase, trypsin, and chymotrypsin (secreted by the pancreas) or high levels of fat. If insulin secretion is reduced, blood sugar levels are high. Pulmonary function tests (see Symptoms and Diagnosis of Lung Disorders: Pulmonary Function Testing (PFT)) may show that breathing is compromised and are good indicators of how well the lungs are functioning. Also, chest x-rays and computed tomography (CT) may be helpful to document lung infection and the extent of lung damage.
Carrier testing can be performed for prospective parents. In particular, relatives of a child with cystic fibrosis may want to know if they are likely to have children with the disease, and they should be offered genetic testing and counseling. A small blood sample is taken to help determine whether a person has a defective cystic fibrosis gene. Unless both prospective parents have at least one such gene, their children will not have cystic fibrosis. If both parents carry a defective cystic fibrosis gene, each pregnancy has a 25% chance of producing a child with cystic fibrosis, a 50% chance of producing a child who is a carrier, and a 25% chance of producing a child with no defective cystic fibrosis genes.
The severity of cystic fibrosis varies greatly from person to person regardless of age. The severity is determined largely by how much the lungs are affected. In the United States, half of the people with cystic fibrosis live about 37 years or longer. The outlook for longer survival has improved steadily over the past 50 years, mainly because treatments can now postpone some of the changes that occur in the lungs. Long-term survival is significantly better in people who do not develop pancreatic problems.
However, deterioration is inevitable, leading to loss of lung function and eventually death. People with cystic fibrosis usually die of respiratory failure after many years of deteriorating lung function. A small number, however, die of heart failure, liver disease, bleeding into the airways, or complications of surgery. Despite their many problems, people with cystic fibrosis usually attend school or work until shortly before death.
A person with cystic fibrosis should have a comprehensive program of therapy directed by an experienced doctor—usually a pediatrician or an internist—along with a team of other doctors, nurses, a dietitian, social worker, genetics counselor, psychologist, and physical and respiratory therapists. The goals of therapy include long-term prevention and treatment of lung and digestive problems and other complications, maintenance of good nutrition, and encouragement of physical activity.
Children with cystic fibrosis need psychologic and social support because they may be unable to participate in normal childhood activities and may feel isolated. Much of the burden of treating a child with cystic fibrosis falls on the parents, who should receive adequate information and training so they can understand the condition and the reasons for the treatments.
The treatment of lung problems focuses on preventing airway blockage and controlling infection. The person should receive all routine immunizations (see Immunization: Introduction), particularly for those infections that cause respiratory infection, such as influenza and pneumococcus.
Respiratory therapy—consisting of postural drainage, percussion, hand vibration over the chest wall, and encouragement of coughing—is started at the first sign of lung problems (see Rehabilitation for Lung and Airway Disorders: Chest Physical Therapy). Parents of a young child can learn these techniques and carry them out at home every day. Older children and adults can carry out respiratory therapy independently, using special breathing devices or a compression vest.
Often, people are given drugs that help prevent their airways from narrowing (bronchodilators). People with severe lung problems and a low level of oxygen in the blood may need supplemental oxygen therapy. In general, people with respiratory failure do not benefit from using a ventilator (breathing machine); however, occasional, short periods of mechanical ventilation in the hospital may help during an acute infection, after a surgical procedure, or while waiting for a lung transplant.
Aerosol (nebulized) drugs, such as dornase alfa (recombinant human deoxyribonuclease I) or a highly concentrated (hypertonic) salt solution, are widely used to help thin the pus-filled mucus. Such drugs make it easier to cough up sputum, improve lung function, and may also decrease the frequency of serious respiratory tract infections. Corticosteroids can relieve symptoms in infants with severe bronchial inflammation and in people who have narrowed airways that cannot be opened with bronchodilators. Sometimes, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID—see Pain: Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) is used to slow the deterioration of lung function.
Respiratory tract infections must be treated as early as possible with antibiotics. At the first sign of a respiratory tract infection, a sample of coughed-up sputum or a throat culture is collected and tested, so that the infecting organism can be identified and the doctor can choose the drugs most likely to control it. Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas species are commonly found. An antibiotic often can be given by mouth, or an antibiotic such as tobramycin can be given in an aerosol mist. However, if the infection is severe, intravenous antibiotics may be needed. This treatment often requires hospitalization but may be given at home. Taking an oral ( azithromycin ) or aerosol ( tobramycin ) antibiotic intermittently or continuously may help prevent recurrences of infection and slow the decline in lung function.
People who have pancreatic problems must take pancreatic enzyme replacements with each meal; a powder (for infants) and capsules are available. Special milk formulas containing protein and fats that are easy to digest may help infants who have pancreatic problems and poor growth.
The diet should provide enough calories and protein for normal growth. The proportion of fat should be normal to high. Because people with cystic fibrosis need more calories, they need to consume higher than normal amounts of fat to ensure adequate growth. People with cystic fibrosis should take double the usual recommended daily amount of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) in a special formulation that is more easily absorbed. When they exercise, have a fever, or are exposed to hot weather, people who have cystic fibrosis should increase their salt intake. Children who cannot absorb enough nutrients from food may need supplementary feedings through a tube inserted into the stomach or small intestine.
At some time, surgery may be needed to treat a pneumothorax, chronic sinus infection, severe chronic infection restricted to one area of the lung, bleeding from blood vessels in the esophagus, gallbladder disease, or obstruction of the intestine. Massive or recurrent bleeding in the lung can be treated by a procedure called embolization, which blocks off the bleeding artery.
Liver transplantation has been successful for severe liver damage. Double lung transplantation for severe lung disease is becoming more routine and more successful with experience and improved techniques. About 60% of people are alive 5 years after transplantation of both lungs, and their condition is much improved.
Gene therapy, in which normal cystic fibrosis genes are delivered directly to the airways, holds promise for treating cystic fibrosis. However, this therapy is only available in research trials. A number of new drugs, delivered by mouth or aerosol, are under investigation.