Common Signs and Symptoms of Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is a life-threatening genetic disorder that causes serious damage to a patient’s respiratory and digestive systems, gradually leading to further damage of vital organs—including the lungs, liver, intestines, and pancreas. According to the Mayo Clinic, roughly, 1000 Americans are diagnosed with Cystic fibrosis on an annual basis. Sadly, there is no cure for cystic fibrosis.

Cystic fibrosis strikes at cells within the body responsible for  secreting fluids (i.e., digestive juices, sweat, and mucus). While healthy bodily fluids such as these are slippery and thin in nature for lubrication, cystic fibrosis causes them to turn thick and sticky, blocking vital passageways, ducts, and tubes in the pancreas and lungs. This can leave patients prone to malnutrition, infection, and respiratory failure. Even though cystic fibrosis requires ongoing daily treatment and can greatly shorten a patient’s life expectancy, today many patients are managing the following symptoms, and living into middle age (40s and 50s) with the disorder:

1. Digestive issues

As mentioned, the thick and sticky secretions caused by cystic fibrosis often block the essential transport of digestive enzymes by the pancreas, leading to several digestive disturbances and leaving the patient prone to malnutrition from lack of food-vitamin absorption. Cystic fibrosis patients often experience painful abdominal swelling, loss of appetite, inability to gain weight, delayed growth, and nausea, constipation, and greasy, putrid-smelling bowel movements.

2. Respiratory difficulties

Breathing problems are also common to patients with cystic fibrosis, as thickening, sticky secretions can plug up the airways within the lungs. Patients are prone to recurrent respiratory infections, and experience breathing troubles such as chronically blocked sinuses, nasal congestion, stubborn, phlegmy cough, wheezing, shortness of breath whenever doing physical activity.

3. Salty skin

There’s a valid reason behind this rather bizarre-sounding cystic fibrosis symptom. Consider that cystic fibrosis impacts the epithelial cells (or sweat glands), which often leads to a salty glaze of perspiration over the skin’s surface. This is often first detected by parents of children with cystic fibrosis, which notice salty-tasting skin when they kiss their children, or on hot days when sweating is excessive.   

4. Exposure to other health conditions

As cystic fibrosis gradually worsens, symptoms can become exacerbated and cause several associated health conditions to develop. For instance, respiratory decline can lead to repeat respiratory infection (sinus infections) and emphysema (lung disease). While digestive issues can lead to gallstones, diabetes, liver disease, and pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas).