Cystic Fibrosis and the Digestive System


How does cystic fibrosis affect the digestive system?

Cystic fibrosis (CF) mainly affects the pancreas in the digestive system. The pancreas is an organ that secretes digestive enzymes that help digestion and insulin, which controls the levels of blood sugar.

Because of the problem with the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene, the secretions from the pancreas become thick and can lead to blocked ducts. This causes a decrease in the secretion of digestive enzymes from the pancreas. A child with CF has difficulty absorbing fats, some proteins and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

The problems with the pancreas can become so severe that some of the hormone cells in the pancreas are destroyed. This may lead to glucose intolerance and insulin-dependent diabetes. About 35 percent of CF patients develop diabetes in their 20s, and more than 50 percent develop the disease after age 30.

Digestive symptoms in children with CF include:

  • Frequent, bulky, greasy stools
  • Rectal prolapse (the final section of the large intestine—the rectum protrudes from the anus)
  • Fat in the stools
  • Stomach pain
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Poor growth
  • Gallstones

The liver also may be affected. A small number of patients may develop liver disease. Symptoms of liver disease include:

  • Enlarged liver
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Yellow skin color
  • Vomiting blood