Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited (genetic) disease in which excess mucus clogs the lungs, prevents food from being digested, and damages the reproductive system. It is the most common life-threatening genetically inherited disease affecting Caucasians. The incidence of CF occurs in about 1 in 3,600 live Caucasian births in Canada.
In CF, an abnormal protein called CFTR is produced. This protein changes the way chloride (a component of salt, which is also called sodium chloride) moves in and out of cells. This affects the balance between salt and water in the body, making the mucus that lines the lungs, pancreas, and other organs thicker and stickier.
CF affects all the body's exocrine glands. These glands create chemicals necessary for proper functioning of the body. The pancreas, for example, is an exocrine gland that provides digestive enzymes for the stomach. The sweat glands provide liquid to cool the skin. In CF, some glands produce abnormal substances. The sweat glands, for example, release high levels of salt. Other glands, like the pancreas, become plugged with mucus. Because it affects so many organs in our body, CF is usually diagnosed early in childhood.
The tables below show your risk of being a CF carrier based on your which family members have CF or your ethnicity:
|Relative with CF||Your carrier risk|
|Parent or child||1 in 1 (100%)|
|Siblings||2 in 3 (67%)|
|Niece or nephew||1 in 2 (50%)|
|Aunt or uncle||1 in 3 (33%)|
|Cousin||1 in 4 (25%)|
|Caucasian (white, European ancestry)||1 in 25|
|Ashkenazi Jewish||1 in 25|
|Hispanic||1 in 46|
|African American||1 in 65|
|Asian||1 in 90|
Thanks to good research, better and more medications, and early diagnosis, people with CF are living longer, fuller lives.
CF cannot be "caught" like a cold or the flu. It's genetic and is caused by inheriting two copies of the same abnormal gene, one from each parent. People who get one defective and one normal copy of the gene are said to be "carriers" of the CF gene. Carriers don't get CF, but they have the abnormal CF gene that can be passed on to their children.
If both parents are carriers, their children have a 1 in 4 chance of getting the disease, a 1 in 2 chance of being carriers, and a 1 in 4 chance of being normal. Boys and girls are equally likely to have CF.
Researchers have also noticed higher levels of some essential fatty acids in people with CF. The role of these fatty acids is still unknown.
CF causes the body to produce large amounts of thick mucus. This affects the lungs as well as the digestive and reproductive systems. Symptoms of CF may appear at birth or years later, and range from mild to severe.
A child's skin will taste salty - something a parent may notice - because CF causes the sweat to contain an unusually high amount of salt.
In the lungs, the mucus plugs the child's airways. This leads to wheezing, coughing, and trouble breathing. It also puts the child at risk of lung and sinus infections. Bacteria are always found in the airways of people with CF. Some of these bacteria can speed up the process of damage to the lungs.
Enzymes produced by the pancreas are necessary to digest food in the stomach. In people with CF, large amounts of mucus block the pancreas and prevent enzymes from being released. This causes digestive problems. Even if they eat a normal diet, children with CF may be smaller than others of the same age. Since food is not digested correctly, it leaves the body as waste in the stools. The stools are often large and have a foul smell.
Children with CF may reach puberty at a later age than normal. Both men and women may have fertility problems - 98% of men with CF are infertile. Male infertility is usually caused by not having the vas deferens (tubes that move sperm out from the testicles). In women, mucus can clog the fallopian tubes or the menstrual cycles may be irregular. Nevertheless, many women with CF are able to get pregnant and give birth to normal children if their partners don't have or carry CF. Their children, however, will carry the CF gene.
As a child grows older, CF may cause other symptoms. Some develop diabetes and need insulin treatment, and others suffer liver damage. Many children with CF live well into adulthood. On average, people with CF in North America live to the age of 37. With improving treatments and health care, this age will continue to increase gradually. For the minority who have a healthy pancreas, the prognosis is far better. Good lung function is also a promising sign. Men tend to survive slightly longer than women.