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Look Up > Conditions > Cystic Fibrosis
Cystic Fibrosis
Risk Factors
Signs and Symptoms
Differential Diagnosis
Physical Examination
Laboratory Tests
Other Diagnostic Procedures
Treatment Options
Treatment Strategy
Drug Therapies
Surgical Procedures
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Patient Monitoring
Other Considerations


Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a fatal, multisystem disease. It is autosomal recessive, resulting from mutations in the CF transmembrane regulator (CFTR) protein, which is a chloride channel found in exocrine tissue. Prevalence varies by ethnicity. In the United States, CF is diagnosed once in every 2,000 to 3,000 Caucasian live births, but once in every 17,000 African American live births. CF typically is diagnosed in childhood after a chronic lung disease or obstruction. Significant improvements in treatment have pushed the median survival rate to approximately 30 years of age.


CF is a genetically inherited defect, causing abnormal chloride and sodium secretions across epithelial cell membranes.

Risk Factors

Genetic predisposition

Signs and Symptoms
  • Chronic obstructive lung disease—thick, viscous mucus secretions; repeated infection
  • Changes in color and amount of sputum
  • Chronic cough, possibly with blood streaking
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Bronchitis
  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Asthma
  • Nasal polyps
  • Malnutrition—weight loss, failure to thrive in infants, abdominal distention
  • Excessive salt in sweat, dehydration
  • Meconium ileus—failure of infant to pass stool
  • Intestinal obstruction—distention, pain, flatulence, weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Pancreatitis, cirrhosis
  • Late onset of puberty, infertility

Differential Diagnosis
  • Asthma
  • Appendicitis
  • Lymphoma
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Immotile cilia syndrome
  • Eosinophilic granuloma

Physical Examination

Patient appears with apparent weight loss, chronic cough, mucus-filled secretions, increased chest diameter, and possibly distended abdomen. Nasal obstruction and polyps are often visible.

Laboratory Tests
  • Sputum test—culture bacteria to determine choice of antibiotic therapy
  • Sweat analysis—more than 60 mEq/L of chloride indicates CF
  • Genetic screening—supports diagnosis
  • 72-hour fecal fat analysis of stool


All affected tissue has abnormal ion transport function; otherwise, pathology is organ-specific.


  • Increased transepithelial electrical potential—increased sodium ion rates and decreased chloride ion permeability, resulting in dehydrated, mucus-filled lungs
  • Chronic infections—Pseudomonas aeruginosa and other Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus aureus
  • Increased viscosity—limits ciliary motility, allows bacterial growth
  • Hyperchloremic, thick secretions
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Lung abscess
  • Eventually, bronchiolitis, bronchiectasis, digital clubbing, cor pulmonale, irreversible lung failure


  • Pancreatic exocrine enzyme insufficiency—epithelium, lacking chloride and water secretion, cannot flush mucins from intestinal crypts, which eventually destroys the pancreas; steatorrhea; malabsorption of fat-soluble vitamins
  • Edematous ileocecal bowel with obstruction
  • Liver—deficient hepatic chloride and water secretions leads to retention of biliary secretions and cirrhosis
  • Deficient gallbladder salt and water secretions result in cholecystitis and cholelithiasis

Sweat glands: impaired chloride and sodium absorption across ductal epithelial cells

  • Chest radiography—hyperinflation, peribronchial thickening, mucus plugs, cystic cavities, bronchiectasis
  • Computerized tomography—bronchiectasis, localized airway thickening
  • Abdominal radiograph—for abdominal obstruction

Other Diagnostic Procedures
  • Spirometric measurement
  • Serum concentration of immunoreactive trypsin—infant screening
  • Clinical features—including foul-smelling, large, greasy stools

Treatment Options
Treatment Strategy

CF is a fatal disease, but complications can be delayed with careful management. Any of the following general measures may be part of the treatment plan.

  • Chest physiotherapy—aids in preventing disease progression; manual percussion, postural drainage, breathing exercises; 20 to 30 min tid to qid; various mechanical modalities available (e.g., ThAirapy Vest)
  • Oxygen—alleviates dyspnea, may reduce pulmonary hypertension
  • Gastrointestinal obstruction—water-soluble contrast enema; polyethylene glycol-electrolyte solution
  • Liver, gallbladder—conventionally treated

Drug Therapies

Anti-inflammatory drugs—reduces rate of lung deterioration; use for concurrent asthma.

  • Ibuprofen—titrate to peak serum level of 50 to 100 mcg/mL, monitor renal function
  • Prednisone—1 to 2 mg/kg every other day; side effects include growth failure, hypertension, cataracts

Recombinant human DNAse—reduces viscosity of airway secretions, increasing air flow; 2.5 mg vials daily or bid, delivered via nebulizer.

Inhaled beta-adrenergic agonists or anticholinergics—short-term control of airway constriction.


  • Oral— for increased cough or mucus; cephalosporins or a semisynthetic penicillin
  • Inhaled: for bacterial suppression—tobramycin (300 to 600 mg bid) 28 day cycle, via a compressor and nebulizer; side effect—ototoxicity; for acute exacerbation—gentamicin 80 mg tid, 2 mL of solution added to 1 mL of normal saline via a standard home nebulizer; side effect: ototoxicity
  • Intravenous—aminoglycosides typically combine with another class; hospitalize because symptoms worsen as secretions mobilize; monitor renal function

Surgical Procedures
  • Heart-lung transplant—significant improvement in pulmonary function, no disease recurrence, 50% survival rate at 5 years
  • Gastrointestinal obstruction—may require surgery

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Nutritional and herbal therapies may help decrease the severity of progression, protect organ function, and minimize opportunistic infections in cystic fibrosis. Homeopathy can be used concurrently, preferably constitutionally, although acute remedies may be used as needed.

  • Diet can profoundly affect the severity of cystic fibrosis. It is imperative to limit foods that increase mucus production: dairy (especially milk, cheese, and ice cream), peanuts, oranges, bananas, sugar, saturated fats, wheat and gluten-containing grains (barley, oats, and rye), excessive meat, and salt. Foods that reduce mucus should be liberally included in the diet (garlic, onions, watercress, horseradish, mustard, umeboshi plums, parsley, celery, rose hips tea, pickles, and lemon).
  • Remove all food allergens; suspect wheat, dairy, and eggs. Consider a five-day rotation diet to minimize sensitivities.
  • Increase anti-inflammatory oils (nuts, seeds, cold-water fish) and medium chain triglycerides (caprylic acid).
  • Pancreatic enzymes with meals (1,000 lipase units per kg for patients under 4 years, 500 units over 4 years)
  • Antioxidants: selenium 200 mcg/day, vitamin E 400 IU/day, beta-carotene 25,000 IU/day, and vitamin C 500 to 1,000 mg bid to tid; all protect lung tissue
  • N-acetyl cysteine 200 mg tid to help thin mucus
  • Zinc 10 to 30 mg/day to support immunity
  • Quercetin (250 to 500 mg before meals) helps to reduce inflammation secondary to food sensitivities and compromised digestion.


Herbs may be used as dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Dose for teas is 1 heaping teaspoon herb/cup water steeped for 10 minutes (roots need 20 minutes).

  • To liquify mucus, mix equal parts of four to six of the following herbs: thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata), anise (Pimpinella anisum), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis); 20 to 60 drops bid to qid.
  • To stimulate the pancreas, mix equal parts of blue flag (Iris versicolor), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus); 10 to 15 drops in warm water before meals.
  • For acute infection, combine equal parts of coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), and elecampane (Inula helenium) with 15 drops of cayenne (Capsicum annuum); 20 to 30 drops every three to four hours.


An experienced homeopath would consider an individual's constitutional type to prescribe a more specific remedy and potency. Some of the most common acute remedies are listed below. Acute dose is three to five pellets of 12X to 30C every one to four hours until symptoms resolve.

  • Antimonium tart for rattling, unproductive cough with cyanosis about the mouth, weakness, and irritability
  • Carbo vegetabilis for dyspnea with anxiety, air hunger, and collapse
  • Laurocerasus for collapsed states with cyanosis, cold sensation in the chest, and fainting episodes


May help stimulate respiratory function and enhance immunity


Therapeutic massage, particularly with postural drainage, is an essential part of treatment of cystic fibrosis.

Patient Monitoring
  • Pulmonary function tests—every three to six months
  • Chest radiography—every two to four years; yearly with complication

Other Considerations
  • Regular visits to CF centers lowers morbidity
  • Chest physiotherapy delays progression
  • Influenza vaccination

  • Pulmonary exacerbation—intravenous antibiotics; supplemental oxygen; leads to respiratory failure
  • Biliary cirrhosis
  • Minor hemoptysis—blood streaking in the sputum
  • Major hemoptysis—life threatening, requires supplemental oxygen, endotracheal intubation, bronchial artery embolization, or lung resection
  • Pneumothorax—rupture of subpleural blebs; tube thoracostomy, surgery
  • Rectal prolapse—from chronic cough, constipation, diarrhea; rapid manual reduction prevents edema
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Cardiac disease—secondary to cor pulmonale

  • Respiratory problems—account for 95% of morbidity and mortality
  • Median survival—approximately 30 years



  • Monitor for diabetes
  • Infertility possible from increased cervical mucus—intrauterine insemination
  • Genetic counseling, DNA testing of partner determines degree of risk
  • 90% of completed pregnancies result in viable births

Men: absence of vas deferens (from altered hypoplasia and prostatic secretions) contributes to azoospermia


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Copyright © 2000 Integrative Medicine Communications

This publication contains information relating to general principles of medical care that should not in any event be construed as specific instructions for individual patients. The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. The reader is advised to check product information (including package inserts) for changes and new information regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.