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What is Cystic Fibrosis?

Cystic fibrosis can make it difficult for fluids to reach the small intestine which can lead to digestion and nutrition problems.
Individuals with cystic fibrosis often suffer from recurrent lung infections.
Coughing can be a symptom of cystic fibrosis.
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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2014
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Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease that affects thousands of children and adults. Affecting breathing and digestion, cystic fibrosis can be life-threatening. Though there is currently no known cure for the disease, there are medical treatments that can improve the outlook for those struggling with cystic fibrosis. Most individuals with cystic fibrosis live to be in their thirties. Sadly, however, many die before reaching adulthood. As cystic fibrosis is inherited, it is not contagious.

In the United States, it is estimated that one in every 30 Americans carries the gene that causes cystic fibrosis. Many individuals carry the gene, yet do not have the disease. These people are called carriers.

In order for a child to be born with the disease, both of his parents must have the gene that causes it. When both parents carry the cystic fibrosis gene, their child has a 25% chance of being born with the disease. Happily, there is a 50% chance the child will be born a carrier and a 25% chance that she will not have the gene at all.

Cystic fibrosis wreaks havoc on the movement of salt through certain cells in the body. It particularly affects the movement of salt in cells lining the lungs and pancreas, resulting in thickened, sticky mucus. It also causes the thickening of other bodily secretions.

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The thickened mucus becomes an encouraging place for bacteria to breed and grow. As a result, individuals with cystic fibrosis often suffer from frequent lung infections. Eventually, the lungs become damaged from recurrent infections.

The thickening of digestive fluids as a result of cystic fibrosis can cause the ducts that run from the pancreas to the small intestine to become clogged. When this happens, fluids cannot reach the small intestine. This is problematic because the fluids are necessary for the proper digestion of food. When these ducts are clogged, growth and digestive problems result.

There are many symptoms of cystic fibrosis, ranging from the mild to the severe. Symptoms of cystic fibrosis include coughing, wheezing, frequent lung infections, poor growth, and shortness of breath. Individuals with cystic fibrosis also commonly have intestinal blockages and stools that are greasy and bulky. Infertility is common in affected males.

Certain couples are more at risk of carrying the gene that causes cystic fibrosis and passing it on to their children. If an individual has a family history of cystic fibrosis, he or she is more likely to carry the gene. The gene that causes cystic fibrosis is most common in Caucasians. However, the disease affects individuals of all races.

There is a cystic fibrosis carrier-screening test available to those who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy. The test involves taking a sample of blood or saliva and sending it to a lab to test for the gene that causes the disease. Though the test is elective, many medical authorities recommend it for all couples expecting a baby or planning for pregnancy.

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