It is currently not possible to cure cystic fibrosis. However, medications and airway clearance techniques can help a person manage the condition. In severe cases, a doctor may recommend a lung transplant.

Cystic fibrosis is a condition that affects the cells responsible for producing mucus and sweat. Genetic changes cause the body to produce sticky, thick mucus that can lead to damage, blockage, and infections.

Some people who have the condition may not develop any symptoms, while others may develop life threatening complications. Advances in treatment help people live longer, healthier lives, but currently, there is no cure for cystic fibrosis.

This article reviews the various treatment methods available for cystic fibrosis and the outlook for people living with the condition.

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Despite advances in treatments, a cure for cystic fibrosis is still unavailable. Instead, treatments focus on managing the condition to allow a person to live a longer, healthier life.

Current treatments include:

  • medications to help thin the mucus in the airways
  • antibiotics to treat infections
  • enzymes to aid in the digestion of fats and nutrients
  • medications to fix the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) protein

A person develops cystic fibrosis when the body does not produce enough or creates atypical copies of the cystic CFTR protein. The CFTR protein is responsible for helping maintain a salt and water balance on the surface of cells. When the body cannot maintain this balance, mucus can build up and become thick and sticky.

Targeting the CFTR protein can help restore the protein’s typical function and help maintain the balance. New medications and therapies attempt to target the CFTR protein.

Research into cystic fibrosis is ongoing.

Learn more about cystic fibrosis.

Several medications may help a person living with cystic fibrosis. The different classes of medication include:

  • antibiotics to help fight bacterial infections
  • CFTR modulators that help improve CFTR protein function to assist in improving lung function
  • bronchodilators to help open and relax the airways
  • mucus thinners to help thin mucus and make it easier to clear the substance from the lungs
  • anti-inflammatory medications to help reduce inflammation, which may help prevent lung disease or other complications

Researchers continue to look at new CFTR modulators. A 2023 report indicated that a new inhaled medication could serve as a treatment option for cystic fibrosis by helping restore lung function.

Airway clearance techniques help clear the airways of mucus that may be blocking typical airflow. Some methods to clear the airways include:

  • learning new ways to cough to loosen and remove mucus
  • physical therapy on the chest
  • mouthpieces or masks to help a person breathe out with more pressure to loosen stuck mucus
  • vibrating vests to help loosen mucus

A doctor can help a person learn airway clearance techniques that they may be able to perform on their own or with the help of a relative or carer.

Learn about cystic fibrosis vest therapy.

A lung transplant is not a first-line therapy for cystic fibrosis. A doctor may recommend it for people with advanced lung disease or who are going into respiratory failure.

A lung transplant involves removing a damaged lung and replacing it with a healthy one. The procedure can help increase a person’s lifespan and improve the quality of life for those who do not respond to other treatments.

A lung transplant is an invasive procedure that will require general anesthesia. A person can expect to stay in the hospital for 1–3 weeks following the procedure for recovery. They will also need follow-up visits with doctors to ensure the surgery is effective.

According to a 2019 report, the median survival age of a person living with cystic fibrosis is 48.4 years. Doctors consider this a significant achievement given the past life expectancies of those with the condition.

In 1954, the median survival age for someone with cystic fibrosis ranged from 4 to 5 years old. In 1978, this increased to around 11 years old nationwide.

Changes in understanding lung diseases and improving aggressive treatments have helped raise the life expectancy of people born with cystic fibrosis.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition that interferes with the clearing of mucus from airways. This buildup of mucus can lead to trouble breathing, infections, and damage to the lungs.

Newer treatment techniques have greatly improved the life expectancy of people living with the condition. However, a cure for cystic fibrosis is not yet available.

Treatments can include medications, therapies to loosen and remove mucus, and targeted therapy to improve the function of CFTR proteins. The combined efforts have greatly increased the average lifespan of people living with cystic fibrosis.