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Cystic Fibrosis

What is Cystic Fibrosis?

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic condition characterized by the production of abnormally thick, sticky mucus, particularly in the lungs and digestive system. While it is normal to have mucus lining the organs of the respiratory, digestive, and reproductive systems in order to lubricate and protect them, in people with CF this mucus is thick and sticky. This abnormal mucus results in the clogging and obstructing of various systems in the body. CF is a chronic condition that worsens over time.

Most people with CF experience breathing problems and frequent lung infections that lead to permanent lung damage such as scarring (fibrosis) and sac-like growths (cysts). The pancreas, an organ that produces insulin and digestive enzymes, is often affected by CF. The sticky mucus caused by CF can block ducts which ferry enzymes from the pancreas to the rest of the body, resulting in problems such as diarrhea, malnutrition, and poor growth. Infertility, particularly in men, and delayed puberty are also common among people with cystic fibrosis.

The severity of symptoms varies from person to person, even among individuals with the same mutations. Most cases of CF are diagnosed in early childhood. However, in general, individuals with two classic mutations are more likely to have a severe form of the disease including problems with the pancreas, while individuals with one classic and one non-classic or individuals with two non-classic mutations are more likely to have a milder form of the condition and may avoid problems with the pancreas.

Mutations in the same gene that causes CF can result in a condition in males called congenital absence of the vas deferens (CAVD). In CAVD, the vas deferens (a reproductive organ involved in sperm transport) is improperly formed, leading to infertility.

How common is Cystic Fibrosis?

According to the National Institutes of Health, CF is the most common deadly inherited condition among Caucasians in the United States. Disease-causing mutations in the CFTR gene are more common in some ethnic populations than others.

Ethnic GroupCarrier RateAffected Rate
French Canadian1 in 161 in 900
Caucasian1 in 281 in 3,000
Ashkenazi Jewish1 in 281 in 3,000
Hispanic1 in 461 in 8,300
African American1 in 661 in 17,000
Asian1 in 871 in 30,000

How is Cystic Fibrosis treated?

There is no treatment that addresses the cause of CF, but there are many options to treat the symptoms it produces. Because thick mucus can build up in the respiratory system, it is important to keep the person's airways open in order to ease breathing and prevent infection. This can be accomplished with various prescription drugs as well as by physically loosening mucus by pounding on the person's back in a prescribed way. This treatment, known as "postural drainage and chest percussion" must be performed by someone other than the affected person, and is typically done at least once daily. As respiratory infections occur, physicians typically prescribe antibiotics.

Physicians will also monitor the digestive system to ensure that the person is getting proper nutrition. Enzymes or vitamin supplements may be prescribed. Both the respiratory and digestive systems of a person with CF must be monitored regularly by his or her medical team.

Surgery may be needed to correct certain problems caused by CF. Lung transplants are an option for some people.

What is the prognosis for a person with Cystic Fibrosis?

Thanks to improved treatments and a better understanding of the condition, the average life expectancy for people with CF who live to adulthood is 35 years. Children born with CF today who receive early treatment may live even longer.


Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

The largest non-profit devoted to CF, it has 80 chapters and branches across the U.S. It funds research on CF, accredits CF care centers, and provides families with support and information.

6931 Arlington Road
Bethesda, MD 20814
Phone: (800) FIGHT-CF (344-4823)

Genetics Home Reference

Explanations of an extensive number of genetic conditions written for everyday people by the U.S. government's National Institutes of Health.

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

A division of the government-run National Institutes of Health, NHLBI maintains a straightforward site with facts about CF.

NHLBI Health Information Center
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573

Other names for Cystic Fibrosis

  • Fibrocystic Disease of Pancreas
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • CFTR-Related Disorders
  • Mucoviscidosis
  • CF
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