Cystic Fibrosis Symptoms

Symptoms of Cystic Fibrosis (CF)

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a hereditary disease that causes respiratory and digestive problems, and in many cases, deadly lung disease. Children are born with the illness when both their parents are carriers of the CF gene.  Each year, about 2,500 babies are born with cystic fibrosis.

The type and severity of symptoms vary with each patient because there are hundreds of mutations of the CF gene. The average lifespan of a person with cystic fibrosis (especially more severe cases) is usually about 30 years old.

Symptoms usually appear within the first year after birth, but there have been cases where the symptoms did not show up until adolescence or even late teenage years. There are many symptoms directly or indirectly related to cystic fibrosis. Below we'll take a look at some of the most common symptoms and how they can affect the patient in their day-to-day living.

Unusual Bowel Movements

One of the early signs of cystic fibrosis is persistent diarrhea or foul-smelling, bulky and greasy bowel movements. The reason for abnormal bowel movements is that mucus blocks the pancreas' ducts and prevents the enzymes that are produced by the pancreas from reaching the intestines for proper food digestion. This can also lead to excessive weight loss and malnutrition. Some babies that are born with cystic fibrosis can develop an intestinal blockage called meconium ileus, which can happen shortly after birth.

Mild-to-Severe Breathing Problems

Mucus also becomes very thick and sticky within the lungs, which can cause mild-to-severe breathing problems. The mucus obstructs the airways and can lead to bacteria formation and infections in the lungs. Lung infections can also lead to wheezing, chronic coughing, and inflammation of the lungs. The mucus buildup often leads to permanent lung damage with scar tissue (fibrosis) and cysts, and eventually death caused by lung disease, over time. 

Salty Skin

A person with cystic fibrosis will have salty-tasting skin. This is because their body is producing or secreting too much sweat and mucus due to a gland abnormality. They lose excessive amounts of salt while sweating, thus, causing their skin to be extremely salty.

Abnormal Heart Rhythms

Losing excessive salt upsets the body's balance of minerals in the blood. This can lead to abnormal heart rhythms or even shock.

Infertility in Males with Cystic Fibrosis

Males with cystic fibrosis are often sterile, or unable to father a child biologically, because the tubes that carry the sperm, called the vas deferens, do not develop properly.  Infertility is possible in women with the disease as well, but less common than with males.


Cystic fibrosis patients are likely to develop frequent pneumonia because of the mucus buildup within the lungs. That's why it is important to be consistent with treatments on a daily basis to help reduce mucus buildup.

Other Symptoms

There are many other symptoms that are indirectly related to cystic fibrosis. These include sinusitis, nose polyps, pneumothorax, enlargement of the heart, liver disease, diabetes, gallstones, enlargement and rounding of the toes and fingers, abdominal pain, and coughing up blood.

One patient might have many of these symptoms or only a few. This depends on the severity of their cystic fibrosis based on the type of CF mutation they received from their parents genetically.  Though there are treatments for these symptoms, scientists are working diligently toward treating or curing the actual source of the problem - the CF genes.