Learn more from pulmonologist Sarah Chalmers, M.D.

Hello. I'm Dr. Sarah Chalmers, a pulmonologist at Mayo Clinic. In this video, we'll cover the basics of cystic fibrosis. What is it? Who gets it? The symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. Whether you're looking for answers for yourself or someone you love, we're here to give you the best information available. Cystic fibrosis is a disorder that damages your lungs, digestive tract and other organs. It's an inherited disease caused by a defective gene that can be passed from generation to generation. Cystic fibrosis affects the cells that produce mucus, sweat and digestive juices. These secreted fluids are normally thin and slippery. But in people with CF, they're thick and sticky. Instead of acting as lubricants, these secretions plug up the tubes, ducts and airways in your body. Although there is no cure for cystic fibrosis, people with this condition are generally able to live normal lives. There are many tools and techniques doctors use to help manage this complicated condition and with improvement in screening and treatments, life expectancy for those with cystic fibrosis is better than ever before.

Simply put, cystic fibrosis is a gene defect. A defect to this gene changes how a salt moves in and out of cells, resulting in thick, sticky mucus in the respiratory, digestive and reproductive systems. It's an inherited condition. A child needs to inherit one copy of the mutated gene from each parent to develop cystic fibrosis. If they only inherit one copy from one parent, they won't develop it. However, they will be a carrier of that mutated gene, so they could pass it along to their own children in the future. Because CF is an inherited disorder, family history determines your risk. Although it can occur in all races, cystic fibrosis is most common in white people of North European ancestry.

There are two kinds of symptoms associated with cystic fibrosis. The first are respiratory symptoms. Thick, sticky mucus can clog the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. This can trigger a persistent cough that produces thick mucus, wheezing, exercise intolerance, repeated lung infections, and inflamed nasal passages or a stuffy nose or recurrent sinusitis. The second type of symptoms are digestive. That same thick mucus that can clog your airways can also bog tubes that carry enzymes from your pancreas to your small intestine. This can result in foul-smelling or greasy stools, poor weight gain and growth, intestinal blockage, or chronic and severe constipation, which may include frequent straining while trying to pass stool. If you or your child show symptoms of cystic fibrosis or if someone in your family has CF, talk with your doctor about testing for the disease.

Since this disease is an inherited condition, reviewing your family history is important. Genetic testing may be done to see if you carry the mutated gene that triggers cystic fibrosis. A sweat test may also be conducted. CF causes higher than normal levels of salt in your sweat. Doctors will examine the levels of salt in your sweat to confirm a diagnosis.

Because this condition is passed from parent to children, newborn screening is routinely done in every state in the U.S. Early diagnosis of CF means that treatments can begin immediately. Unfortunately, there is no cure for cystic fibrosis, but proper treatment can ease your symptoms, reduce complications, and improve your quality of life. Doctors may decide that certain medications are necessary. These could include antibiotics to treat and prevent lung infections, anti-inflammatories to lessen the swelling in your airways, or mucus-thinning drugs to help expel mucus and improve lung function. Medications can also help improve digestive function. From stool softeners to enzymes, to acid-reducing drugs. Some medications can even target the gene defect that causes cystic fibrosis, aiding the faulty proteins to improve lung function and reduce salt in your sweat. Outside of medications, airway clearance techniques, also called chest physical therapy, can relieve mucus obstruction and help to reduce infection and inflammation in the airways. These techniques loosen the thick mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up. In some cases, doctors turn to surgery to help alleviate conditions that can arise from cystic fibrosis. For instance, nasal and sinus surgery to help you breathe, or bowel surgery to help improve digestive function. In life-threatening instances, lung transplant and liver transplant had been performed. Managing cystic fibrosis can be very complex. So consider getting treatment at a center with medical professionals trained in the disorder to evaluate and treat your condition. You can even ask your physician about clinical trials. New treatments, interventions and tests are constantly under development to help prevent, detect, and treat this disease.

Learning you or someone you know has cystic fibrosis can be incredibly challenging. It's okay to feel depressed, anxious, angry, or afraid. In time, you'll find ways to cope, find support and talk to others who are going through it too. Look to your friends and family to help manage stress and reduce anxiety. Seek professional help. Remember, physical conditions come with an emotional and mental burden. And take the time to learn about cystic fibrosis. It's a complicated, severe disorder. So don't hesitate to talk to your medical team about your questions or concerns. With the knowledge and treatment available to doctors today, life with cystic fibrosis is better than ever before. If you'd like to learn even more about cystic fibrosis, watch our other related videos or visit mayoclinic.org. We wish you well.

April 05, 2022