Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a complex hereditary condition that primarily impacts the lungs and digestive system. In the U.S., about 1 in 31 people are carriers of the CF gene, although they may not show symptoms. Typically diagnosed in early childhood, the disease produces thick and sticky mucus that blocks airways and affects multiple organs.
This article will explore the top labs to run bi-annually on patients with cystic fibrosis. We will discuss how regular lab testing is indispensable for the early detection of complications and for optimizing treatment strategies. With the disease having a multitude of symptoms and affecting various aspects of a person's health, staying vigilant through frequent monitoring is essential for effective management and personalized care.
What is Cystic Fibrosis?
Cystic fibrosis is a hereditary disorder affecting the consistency of mucus in the body. Normal mucus is slippery, but in CF patients, it becomes thick and sticky, leading to blockages in multiple organs. This disorder is usually diagnosed in early childhood, though a milder, "atypical" form can manifest later in life, affecting only one organ.
Thick mucus in CF patients causes various complications. In the lungs, it fosters bacterial growth, leading to frequent infections and chronic inflammation, often resulting in fatal respiratory issues. In the pancreas, the mucus blocks the release of essential digestive enzymes, causing malnutrition and digestive problems. Extreme cases can even lead to self-digestion of the pancreas and symptoms resembling type-1 diabetes. The mucus may also cause liver conditions, gallstones, and gastrointestinal issues like constipation. Additionally, CF affects sweat glands, causing them to release excessive salt onto the skin (2).
What Causes Cystic Fibrosis?
Cystic fibrosis develops when a person inherits two defective CF-related genes, one from each parent. This makes CF a recessive disease, meaning both mutated genes are needed for symptoms to appear. Parents may carry the gene without showing symptoms; these individuals are known as "carriers.” The disease originates from a mutated gene on chromosome 7, responsible for the CFTR protein, essential for regulating chloride channels. Both gene copies must be mutated for CF to manifest (2).
Over 2,000 mutations in the CFTR gene have been identified, leading to various problems. These include incorrect protein production, improper processing or folding of the CFTR protein, disrupted regulation mechanisms, impaired chloride transport, and accelerated protein breakdown, resulting in the thick, sticky mucus characteristic of CF (2).
Cystic Fibrosis Symptoms
Cystic fibrosis manifests differently in its classic and atypical forms (2):
Classic CF, usually diagnosed in children, involves:
- Poor growth despite sufficient nutrition.
- Loose or greasy stools.
- Breathing problems, frequent lung and sinus infections.
Atypical CF, often found in adults, includes:
- Chronic respiratory issues like sinusitis and frequent pneumonia.
- Dehydration or heat strokes from abnormal electrolytes.
- Digestive issues like diarrhea and pancreatitis.
- Fertility issues and unexplained weight loss.
Cystic fibrosis symptoms may also vary by age (2):
- Newborns: Early signs like blocked intestines (meconium ileus) and jaundice.
- Infants/Children: Issues like anemia, undescended testicles in boys, and frequent respiratory infections.
- Adults: Symptoms may worsen and diversify:
- Respiratory: Chronic lung issues, bronchial infections.
- Digestive: Pancreatic issues, early diabetes.
- Hepatobiliary: Liver and gallstone conditions.
- Musculoskeletal: Spine and bone density problems.
- Dermatologic: Excessive salt in sweat, nutrient absorption issues.
- Reproductive: Male infertility, thickened cervical mucus in females.
What Are The Benefits of Regular Lab Testing For Patients With Cystic Fibrosis?
Regular lab tests are essential for managing CF effectively. One of the most important reasons for these tests is the early detection of complications. For instance, tests can identify lung infections at an early stage, which is crucial for prompt treatment. They can also monitor if the body is absorbing nutrients properly, a common issue given the pancreatic problems often seen in CF. By catching these issues early, medical professionals can initiate the right treatments, helping to prevent more severe complications like long-term lung damage or nutritional deficiencies (2).
Another important aspect of frequent lab tests is optimizing treatment plans. CF affects multiple systems in the body, so treatment often involves multiple medications and therapies. Regular testing helps clinicians gauge the effectiveness of these treatments, providing valuable information to adjust medication types and dosages. As new CF-specific treatments become available, such as CFTR modulators, lab tests can guide clinicians in choosing the most effective therapy based on a patient's specific genetic makeup (2).
Top Labs To Run Bi-Annually On Patients With Cystic Fibrosis
Functional medicine labs offer a variety of tests that can help tailor treatment to patients, allowing providers to optimize management strategies.
Malabsorption issues in CF often lead to vitamin deficiencies, especially of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. Regular blood tests can monitor these vitamin levels, allowing for adjustments in supplementation as needed (2).
Liver Function Testing
Given that CF can lead to liver conditions and complications such as gallstones, periodic liver function tests can help catch these issues early. This includes tests for liver enzymes, bilirubin, and other markers that indicate how well the liver is working (2).
Blood Chemistry Panel
A comprehensive metabolic panel can assess the function of various organs, including the liver and kidneys, and can also provide important information about electrolyte levels, all of which are crucial in managing CF complications (2).
Fecal Elastase Testing
Pancreatic insufficiency is common in CF, affecting the digestion and absorption of nutrients. A fecal elastase test can indicate whether the pancreas is producing sufficient enzymes, guiding the need for enzyme replacement therapy. If the patient is experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, or abdominal pain, a comprehensive stool test can be ordered. In such cases, the fecal elastase test can also be an add-on to a comprehensive stool analysis, offering a more complete picture of gastrointestinal health along with pancreatic function (2).
With the pancreas often impacted, CF patients are at an increased risk for cystic fibrosis-related diabetes (CFRD). This panel provides a broader view of metabolic health, going beyond the average blood sugar levels assessed by HbA1c alone. It includes real-time glucose and insulin levels for immediate management decisions, as well as markers like Adiponectin and Ferritin that can offer additional insights into insulin sensitivity and inflammation. GSP gives another perspective on long-term glycemic control (2).
Additional Labs to Check
Other bi-annual testing may include:
Pulmonary Function Testing (PFT)
Though not a "lab test" in the traditional sense, regular PFTs are essential to evaluate lung function. They help in monitoring the progression of lung disease and can guide adjustments in respiratory therapies.
Given the high risk of respiratory infections in CF patients, a sputum culture test can help identify bacterial or fungal growth in the lungs. This aids in selecting the right antibiotics or antifungals for treatment.
Cystic fibrosis is a hereditary condition that has far-reaching consequences on a patient's overall health. It primarily affects the respiratory and digestive systems, but its impact can be systemic, touching upon areas like liver function and nutrient absorption. Regular bi-annual lab tests play a pivotal role in the medical management of CF. These tests, such as micronutrient testing and liver function panels, offer valuable information for early identification of complications and assessing the effectiveness of ongoing treatments.
Lab Tests in This Article
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- A Comprehensive and Integrative Approach to Cystic Fibrosis. (2023, August 15). Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/a-comprehensive-and-integrative-approach-to-cystic-fibrosis
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- Siwamogsatham, O., Dong, W., Binongo, J., Chowdhury, R., Alvarez, J. A., Feinman, S. J., Enders, J., & Tangpricha, V. (2014, April 17). Relationship Between Fat-Soluble Vitamin Supplementation and Blood Concentrations in Adolescent and Adult Patients With Cystic Fibrosis. Nutrition in Clinical Practice; John Wiley & Sons Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1177/0884533614530170
- Singh, V. K., & Schwarzenberg, S. J. (2017, November 1). Pancreatic insufficiency in Cystic Fibrosis. Journal of Cystic Fibrosis; Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcf.2017.06.011
- Cystic Fibrosis-Related Diabetes. (n.d.). Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. https://www.cff.org/managing-cf/cystic-fibrosis-related-diabetes
- What Are Pulmonary Function Tests (PFT)? (2019). Cystic Fibrosis. Retrieved September 7, 2023, from https://cystic-fibrosis.com/pulmonary-function-tests
- Sputum Culture. (n.d.). https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/sputum-culture/