Cystic fibrosis can lead to various complications, including respiratory infections, mental health conditions, and diabetes.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic condition that causes an excess of thick, sticky mucus in the body. Mucus can build up in the lungs, the airways, the digestive system, and other organs, leading to complications such as lung infections and digestive difficulties.

This article discusses the various health conditions that can occur as complications of CF.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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When a person has CF, the mucus in their body becomes sticky and thick. It can build up in certain areas, including the lungs, and lead to respiratory infections.

Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis

Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis is a fungal infection that can occur in people with CF. It can cause inflammation in the airways, tightening of the muscles in the lungs, and widening of the airways in the lungs.

This condition can lead to wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain, and blood in the phlegm.

Chronic lung infections

When a person has CF, mucus in the lungs can cause bacteria to settle and grow. This can lead to lung infections such as:

  • Pseudomonas: Pseudomonas bacteria are typically present in damp environments such as bathrooms. They are one of the most common causes of lung infections in people with CF.
  • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA): MRSA is a strain of bacteria that commonly spreads in healthcare settings.
  • Meticillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA): MSSA is another strain of “staph” bacteria. These bacteria live on the skin. MSSA can become resistant to antibiotics and lead to MRSA.
  • Nontuberculous mycobacteria: These strains of bacteria are typically present in soil, swamps, and bodies of water.
  • Burkholderia cepacia complex: These strains of bacteria typically occur in the natural environment.


Bronchiectasis is a widening of the airways that is common in people with CF. The wider airways can become loose and full of scar tissue and may no longer be able to clear mucus effectively. This can result in excess mucus in the lungs, which can lead to various infections.

Collapsed lung

Due to recurring lung infections and a persistent cough, people with CF have about a 10% chance of developing a collapsed lung. This is a serious complication that can be life threatening.

Pulmonary exacerbations

Pulmonary exacerbations typically involve the worsening of respiratory symptoms, such as:

  • increased shortness of breath
  • worsening cough
  • increased phlegm production
  • worsening lung function

They can also affect everyday quality of life and decrease a person’s life expectancy.

When a person has CF, their pelvic floor muscles may become weaker over time due to persistent coughing and repeated lung infections. This can lead to issues with bladder control.

In a 2017 study involving 168 people with CF, 38% of participants reported experiencing bladder control issues, and females reported them more often than males did.

A person with CF may experience mental health conditions. Depression and anxiety are common among people with CF.

In the 2021 annual data report of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Patient Registry, which includes data from more than 17,000 adults with CF, 29.6% of adults reported depression and 28% reported anxiety.

CF can affect various organs in the digestive system, including the pancreas.

The pancreas produces enzymes that typically pass into the digestive system to help digest food. However, when a person has CF, a buildup of mucus in the pancreas can block these enzymes. Therefore, food may not digest properly, and a person may not be able to absorb enough nutrients.

A person with CF may experience several gastrointestinal issues, including:

A female with CF may have thicker cervical mucus and may experience issues with ovulation due to a lack of nutrition. This means it may take them longer to get pregnant. However, a person with CF can become pregnant and have a healthy pregnancy.

A male with CF may experience infertility due to the absence of the canal that transports sperm to the semen. Research suggests that more than 95% of males with CF may have difficulties with fertility.

However, a male with CF can produce sperm and may be able to have biological children with the help of assisted reproductive technology.

It is common for people with CF to experience issues with bone and muscle health.

A person with CF may have low bone mineral density, muscle weakness, and a tendency for inflammation throughout their body. These issues can lead to pain, fractures, and muscular injuries.

CF can lead to issues with several organs due to a buildup of thick, sticky mucus.

Liver disease or liver failure

Research suggests that 10–15% of people with CF may develop cystic fibrosis-associated liver disease. This is due to a blockage of the ducts in the liver, which prevents bile from draining properly.

Kidney disease

When a person has CF, the kidneys may be under a lot of strain due to recurring infections and the various medications a person needs. This stress can lead to cystic fibrosis kidney disease.

According to a 2019 study, the genetic mutation involved in CF may also directly affect the kidneys. However, there is limited research in this area.

Heart failure

Research suggests that heart complications may be present from birth in people with CF.

A person with CF may also experience persistent lung infections, which can strain the heart, cause inflammation in the heart and blood vessels, and lead to oxidative stress. These factors may lead to heart failure.

A person with CF may lose 2–4 times more salt through their sweat than someone without CF because their sweat glands cannot absorb salt back into their blood.

This loss of salt can lead to complications such as dehydration, fatigue, and electrolyte imbalance.

CF can lead to a buildup of mucus in the pancreas, which can cause inflammation and scarring, affect the production of insulin, and lead to high blood sugar levels.

This rise in blood sugar levels can lead to cystic fibrosis-related diabetes.

There is currently no cure for CF. However, there are several treatments that can help manage the condition and increase life expectancy. Possible treatments include:

  • medications such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, bronchodilators, and CFTR modulators
  • methods to help clear the airways, such as chest physical therapy, vibrating vests, and coughing and breathing techniques
  • breathing support such as oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, and ventilators
  • surgery such as a lung or liver transplant

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic condition that can cause a buildup of sticky mucus in the airways, the digestive system, and the organs.

This buildup can lead to various health conditions, including respiratory infections, liver and kidney conditions, heart conditions, mental health conditions, fertility concerns, digestive issues, and diabetes.

There is currently no cure for CF. However, there are several treatments that can help relieve symptoms and increase life expectancy.