Cystic Fibrosis

Health problems associated with cystic fibrosis

Other Names: Mucoviscidosis; CF

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder that causes mucus to build up and damage organs in the body, particularly the lungs and pancreas. Signs and symptoms may include salty-tasting skin; persistent coughing; frequent lung infections; wheezing or shortness of breath; poor growth; weight loss; greasy, bulky stools; difficulty with bowel movements; and in males, infertility. Over time, mucus buildup and infections can lead to permanent lung damage, including the formation of scar tissue (fibrosis) and cysts in the lungs. CF is caused by mutations in the CFTR gene and inheritance is autosomal recessive. Treatment aims to relieve symptoms and usually includes respiratory therapies, inhaled medicines, pancreatic enzyme supplement, and nutritional supplements. Newer medications such as CFTR modulators have been approved for use in the United States. Ongoing research is focused on finding a cure for the disease.

Mutations in a gene called cystic fibrosis transmembrane regulator (CFTR) cause CF. More than 900 mutations in this gene have been found. This gene provides the instructions for the CFTR protein. In normal cells, the CFTR protein acts as a channel that allows cells to release chloride and other ions. But in people with CF, this protein is defective and the cells do not release the chloride. The result is an improper salt balance in the cells which leads to thick, sticky mucus. When mucus clogs the lungs, it can make breathing very difficult, and causes bacteria to get stuck in the airways, resulting in inflammation and infections. Over time, mucus buildup and infections can lead to permanent lung damage, including the formation of scar tissue (fibrosis) and cysts in the lungs. Mucus can also block the digestive tract and pancreas, leading to digestive problems.

CF is inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. This means that to have CF, a person must have a mutation in both copies of the CFTR gene in each cell. People with CF inherit one mutated copy of the gene from each parent, who is referred to as a carrier. Carriers of an autosomal recessive condition typically do not have any signs or symptoms.

When two carriers of an autosomal recessive condition have children, each child has a:

  • 25% (1 in 4) chance to have CF
  • 50% (1 in 2) chance to be a carrier of CF like each parent
  • 25% chance to not have CF and not be a carrier

When a carrier of CF has a child with a person with CF, each child has a:

  • 50% (1 in 2) chance to have CF
  • 50% (1 in 2) chance to be a carrier of CF

A helpful diagram/pictures of both of these situations can be found on the Carrier Testing for CF page of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation website.

Contact the Genetic and Rare Diseases (GARD) Information Center for more information on Cystic Fibrosis.