Cystic fibrosis (CF) is one of the most common, autosomal recessive, life-limiting diseases affecting children and adults in Australia. It causes thick, sticky mucus which affects the lungs and digestive system.
In the 1950s babies born with CF often died in infancy. However, babies born today can expect to live well into adulthood as CF becomes a more manageable disease due to advances in research and new treatments.
The Cystic Fibrosis Gene
The gene involved in CF gives instructions for the cells to make a protein that controls the movement of salt in and out of the cells. This salt transport gene lies on chromosome 7. All of us have two copies of chromosome 7 and therefore everyone has two copies of the salt transport gene. Scientists have called this gene the CFTR (Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Regulator) gene.
People affected with CF have a defective CFTR gene, causing a malfunction of the movement of salt in and out of the cells lining the exocrine system, which is responsible for producing saliva, sweat, tears and mucus. As a result, there is a constant build-up of excessively thick and sticky mucus within the lungs, airways and the ducts within the digestive system.
Is There a Cure for Cystic Fibrosis?
At present, there is no cure for CF. Now that the CFTR faulty gene has been identified, global research is moving towards finding ways of repairing or possibly replacing it.
How Do You Get Cystic Fibrosis?
A child can inherit CF from both parents, getting one abnormal CFTR gene from the mother and another abnormal CFTR gene from the father. Both parents must carry the defective CFTR gene, however the risk of having a child affected with CF is 1 in 4 (or 25%) with each pregnancy.
On average, 1 in 25 Australians carry the defective CF gene. However, carriers do not exhibit any symptoms of the genetic disease and most live their lives unaware of being a carrier of the CF gene. In fact, anyone could be a carrier. In Australia about 1 million people are carriers, without being aware of it.
The Respiratory System
In the respiratory system, thick mucus clogs the airways and traps bacteria, resulting in recurrent infections which cause irreversible lung damage. Lung failure is the major cause of death for someone with CF.
The Digestive System
In approximately 85% of people with CF, the digestive system is affected resulting in impaired pancreatic function. Release of enzymes needed for the breakdown of food and the absorption of vital nutrients is inhibited resulting in poor growth and difficulty with weight gain.
Common Symptoms of Cystic Fibrosis
The severity of symptoms varies from person to person, and many different factors can affect the course of the disease and the health of a person living with CF. These are some of the common symptoms:
- Very salty skin
- Persistent coughing
- Recurrent lung and sinus infections
- Wheezing or shortness of breath
- Poor growth or weight gain
- Frequent greasy, bulky stools or difficulty with bowel movements
- Male infertility
Treatment for Cystic Fibrosis
Airway clearance, or chest physiotherapy, is needed to remove thick, sticky mucus from the lungs to prevent lung damage. It is usually started from diagnosis with CF and continues throughout the person’s life. See our Airway Clearance Techniques factsheet for more information.
Exercise is extremely important for people with CF, with improvements in lung function, strength, fitness levels and overall quality of life. See our Exercise in CF factsheet for more information.
Diet plays a very important role in the management of CF. In fact, nutrition is so important that a healthy body weight can be linked to better lung function. Pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy is required for people with pancreatic insufficiency. See our CF Food resources (link to CF Food on Resources page) for more details.
Common medications include enzymes, bronchodilators, mucolytics, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, salt, vitamins and more. Medications may be taken orally, inhaled via a nebuliser, other inhaler device or given intravenously.
For more detailed information about some of the common CF medications check out our factsheet on Medications.
Infection Prevention and Control
For people with CF, some bacteria and viruses can cause major lung infections, resulting in hospital admissions and permanent lung damage. Part of everyday life for a person with CF involves reducing the risk of catching an infection, through good hand hygiene practices and avoiding people who are unwell. Individuals with CF also need to avoid contact with other people with CF due to cross-infection of bacteria. See the Common Infections factsheet for more information.