Inherited disorders: Cystic fibrosis

Last updated: Monday, March 13, 2017

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a disorder usually diagnosed in childhood in which a genetic mutation disrupts the movement of chloride ions and water across membranes. This means that secretions in certain parts of the body such as the lungs, pancreas and gut, become very thick and are difficult to clear. CF is a complex condition, and we offer only a very basic introduction here.

Chronic respiratory complications

Mucous accumulates in the lungs which becomes infected by bacteria (most commonly Pseudomonas aeruginosa). Recurrent, intermittent infections occur and can become chronic, which may accelerate a decline in respiratory function. Most people who die of CF each year are young adults, and they typically die from lung-related causes. So preventing chronic chest infection is a key element in increasing survival. Airways clearance techniques such as physiotherapy help to reverse the build up of mucous, and medicines such as inhaled dornase alfa or hypertonic saline reduce the viscosity of lung secretions. Acute infections are treated with inhaled antibiotics such as tobramycin or colistin, and oral azithromycin has been given as a long-term oral prophylaxis.

Gastrointestinal complications

Damage to the pancreas results in its digestive enzymes not reaching the bowel in sufficient quantity, and this can give rise to malnutrition. In children this dietary deficiency can affect growth. Patients with CF take pancreatic enzyme supplements orally (pancreatin), and also need nutritional supplements to boost their calorific intake and to ensure they receive adequate fat-soluble vitamins. Some patients suffer from liver impairment, and older patients with CF can develop diabetes because of ongoing damage to the pancreas which may need to be treated pharmacologically.

Cystic fibrosis and the pharmacist


       © Crown copyright 2017
Patients with CF handle medicines differently, but every patient is different so it's difficult to make generalisations. The absorption of medicines may be altered because of the effects that CF has on the gut. Some people need bigger doses of medicines or more frequent dosing because CF may enhance drug clearance. At the same time, patients may be smaller than expected for their age and thinner, and generally have little body fat, and this affects volume of distribution. Many of the patients are children and the special care with which medicines are generally used in this age group is discussed in the children tutorial.

Patients with CF may need medicines that are not commonly used in other patient groups, and so pharmacists have a particular role to ensure that prescribed regimens are safe and correct. The medicines concerned may be unlicensed, may be given via an unlicensed route, or be taken at larger than expected doses. Hospital pharmacists can show patients how to administer medicines, and help them with adherence and monitoring of therapy. You can also organise communications about ongoing supplies of medicines by providing appropriate information to primary care colleagues such as GPs and community pharmacists.

Specialist cystic fibrosis pharmacists are experts at medicines optimisation in this group of patients, so you should try to contact one for advice before making a significant intervention.