Treating cystic fibrosis

People with cystic fibrosis should be treated with help and advice from a team of healthcare professionals at a cystic fibrosis centre. With regular visits, the patient or parent can learn how to best manage the condition. As each case is different, they can receive tailored care for their or their child’s condition.

There is no cure for cystic fibrosis. The aim of treatment is to ease the symptoms and make the condition easier to live with. It can also prevent or reduce long-term damage caused by infections and other complications.

Different types of treatment for cystic fibrosis are detailed below.


Medical treatments for cystic fibrosis help clear and control infections in the lungs and digestive system. They can also be used to treat some of the other health problems related to cystic fibrosis.


Bronchodilators are a type of medication that are inhaled to help the person breathe more easily. They are also used for asthma and relax the muscles that surround the airways in your lungs, helping them to open up.


Antibiotics are taken to fight infections in the lungs. They can be taken by mouth as pills, capsules or liquids, be inhaled through a nebuliser (a device that turns medication into a mist that can be breathed in), or they may be given intravenously (through a tube into a vein) if the infection is more severe.

All young children diagnosed with cystic fibrosis will be started on a course of antibiotics to protect them from certain bacteria, which will be continued for some years. For more advice on the use of antibiotics, see the Cystic Fibrosis Trust information on medication.


Steroid medication (corticosteroids) reduce the swelling of the airways, which can help with breathing in some patients. Steroid nasal drops and sprays can also be used to treat nasal polyps (small growths inside the nostrils).


Pulmozyme (DNase) is an enzyme, usually inhaled via a nebuliser, which helps to thin and break down the sticky mucus in the lungs so it is easier to cough up.

In most cases DNase will not cause any noticeable side effects


People who have diabetes as a result of their cystic fibrosis will need to take insulin and manage their diet to stabilise blood sugar levels. The dietary advice usually given to people with diabetes who do not have cystic fibrosis does not apply to most people with cystic fibrosis-related diabetes.


Bisphosphonates can be taken to treat osteoporosis (weak and brittle bones), which can occur as a result of cystic fibrosis. Bisphosphonates help maintain bone density and reduce risk of fractures.

Vaccinations and flu jabs

It is particularly important that people with cystic fibrosis are up to date with all the required vaccinations. People with cystic fibrosis should make sure they have an annual flu jab, as they are more susceptible to complications as a result of infection.

Digestive system, diet and nutrition

For people with cystic fibrosis, getting the right nutrition is vital. A healthy body weight is necessary to help fight off infections, and it is important there is enough reserve energy to rely on when the person is ill.

Cystic fibrosis causes mucus to build up and block the small channels that carry digestive juices and enzymes. Over time, this causes the pancreas to become damaged. The effect of cystic fibrosis on the pancreas varies from person to person, but most people have to take digestive enzymes from birth to help them digest food and get the nutrients they need, with every meal and snack. They also need to take vitamin supplements.

The diet of someone with cystic fibrosis should be high in calories, as they will not be able to digest all the food they eat.

A special diet should start as soon as cystic fibrosis is diagnosed, which will need to be adapted as people get older.

Babies with cystic fibrosis

Babies with cystic fibrosis may be breastfed as usual, otherwise most baby milks and formulas will be suitable. In some cases, if the baby is not gaining enough weight, a high-energy formula may be needed or nutritional supplements added to milk feeds to give the baby more calories (energy).

Ask a dietitian at the cystic fibrosis centre if you are unsure about this.

Before a baby moves onto solid foods, they may need extra salt as both breast milk and baby milk are very low in salt. Cystic fibrosis makes sweat much saltier and more salt than normal is lost through skin.

If the baby needs extra salt, the dietitian or doctor at the cystic fibrosis centre will advise on the appropriate amount and prescribe a salt solution.

Never add salt to a baby’s food or drink without specific advice from cystic fibrosis specialists.

Babies can eat any normal solid baby foods, but they will need vitamin supplements to compensate for the loss of vitamins A, D, E and K in their stools.

These are available in two liquid preparations. Vitamins A and D are usually combined in one, and there is usually a separate one for vitamin E. Vitamin K is now prescribed by many doctors to older children.

A baby with cystic fibrosis will also need pancreatic enzymes to help them digest food. These take the place of the food-digesting enzymes missing from their digestive system. They usually come in the form of microspheres or minimicrospheres (granules), which can be mixed with a little formula, expressed breast milk or fruit puree and spoon fed ideally at the start, during and after the feed.

The granules should never be given dry as they can be a choking hazard. A dietitian can advise on the amount to use and the most suitable way to give the enzymes.

Children with cystic fibrosis

Children who have cystic fibrosis should eat a varied diet, with a large amount of protein and calories. Meals should include meat, fish and eggs, as well as starchy foods like bread and pasta. If a child’s appetite is poor, give them food little and often, and offer snacks in between meals.

Children who find it particularly hard to gain weight can be given dietary supplements in the form of milk shakes or fruit juices. You can talk to a cystic fibrosis dietitian about these.

Like babies, children with cystic fibrosis will need to continue taking vitamin A, D, E and K supplements to compensate for the vitamins they lose.

Children also need to continue taking pancreatic enzymes with all fat-containing meals, snacks and drinks. The capsules should be taken before and during the meal and the number of capsules will vary depending on the fat content of the meal. Enzymes can be taken in easy-to-swallow capsules.

A dietitian may recommend salt supplements for a child with cystic fibrosis, especially in hot weather or if they are going on holiday to a country with a warm climate, where sweating may cause a loss of salt.

Children with cystic fibrosis are likely to eat more sugary foods than normal due to their high-calorie diet, so it is important to make sure they brush their teeth properly and visit the dentist regularly.

If a child cannot gain enough weight and dietary supplements have not helped, they may need to be tube fed.

This will usually be either nasogastric (the tube is inserted through the nose and goes down to the stomach), or gastrostomy (a small operation is carried out to insert the tube directly into the stomach). The other end of the tube is attached to a bag of high-calorie/nutrient food that is delivered straight to the stomach, usually while the child sleeps.

Adults with cystic fibrosis

Adults who have cystic fibrosis do not need to avoid any particular food, but it is important they have a diet high in protein and energy to maintain their weight. They should eat regular meals and snacks as this helps to maintain energy intake. They should eat three meals a day, including plenty of meat, fish and eggs, and eat several high-calorie snacks in between.

If someone with cystic fibrosis wants to be a vegetarian, they should talk to their dietitian about alternatives to meat. A vegan diet is not advised for people with cystic fibrosis as it tends to be especially low in energy.

Most adults with cystic fibrosis need to continue taking pancreatic enzymes with all fat-containing meals, snacks and drinks. The capsules should be taken before and occasionally during the meal and the number of capsules will vary depending on the fat content of the meal. There are different types and strengths so talking to the cystic fibrosis specialist team will help the person find one that suits them.

Creon is the usual preparation used in the UK. People with cystic fibrosis should not stop taking pancreatic enzymes unless they are told to do so by their dietitian or doctor, as this can lead to a serious blockage of the bowel.

Most adults need to continue taking vitamin A, D, E and K supplements. These come in the form of prescribed multivitamin tablets.

People with cystic fibrosis who lose a lot of weight due to an infection or illness may need to be tube fed to help them gain weight.

As in tube feeding for children, this will be either nasogastric or gastrostomy, depending on how long the tube must stay in for. A gastrostomy tube (which is inserted directly into the stomach) is best for longer periods of time or repeated courses of treatment as it is unlikely to be dislodged during coughing or physiotherapy.


The management of cystic fibrosis with physiotherapy differs for each person with the condition, and is specifically tailored to their needs.

Traditionally, physiotherapy for cystic fibrosis focused mainly on airway clearance (clearing mucus from the lungs). This still makes up a large part of daily treatment, but the role of the physiotherapist in cystic fibrosis has expanded to include daily exercise, inhalation therapy, posture awareness and, for some, the management of urinary incontinence.

Airway clearance

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the airway clearway techniques available (your care team should be able to provide more information on airway clearway techniques).

The most widely used one in the UK is called active cycle of breathing techniques (ACBT).

Active cycle of breathing techniques (ACBT)

ACBT involve you repeating a cycle made up of a number of different steps. These are:

  • a period of 20-30 seconds of normal relaxed breathing
  • 3-4 deep breaths, where you hold each breath in for three seconds before breathing out
  • ‘huffing’ – huffing involves taking a medium size breath in followed by a fast breath through your open mouth while using the muscles of your chest and stomach to help force the breath out – this should help push the mucus /  up to a point where you can cough it out
  • coughing – you should then cough every 2-3 huffs; but don’t try to force out sputum if it does not feel ready to be coughed out

You then repeat the cycle for 20-30 minutes.

(Do not attempt ACBT if you have not first been taught the steps by a suitably trained physiotherapist as performing the techniques incorrectly could damage your lungs).

If you are otherwise in good health you will probably only need to perform ACBT once or twice a day.

If you develop a lung infection you may need to perform ACBT on a more frequent basis.

Postural drainage

Changing your position can also make it easier to remove mucus from your lungs. This is known as postural drainage.

Each technique can involve a number of complex steps but to summarise, most techniques involve you leaning or lying down while the physiotherapist or a carer uses their hands to vibrate certain sections of your lungs as you go through a series of ‘huffing’ and coughing.


There are also a number of devices that can help remove mucus from your lungs. These include:

  • the flutter – a handheld device shaped like an asthma inhaler that delivers vibration to the airway of your lungs, making it easier to cough out mucus
  • RC cornet – a device shaped like a small section of garden hosing which works in much the same way as the flutter
  • the Acapella – a device shaped like a small torch that uses a combination of vibration and air pressure to help remove mucus

Your PCT does not have any obligation to pay for these devices so possibly you would have to pay if you wanted one. 

These type of devices cost in the region of around £45-60.

Some techniques use large pieces of equipment, which can be very expensive and are usually only available for use in a hospital, such as a high frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO). This involves using an electric air compressor that connects to an inflatable jacket (vest) to vibrate the chest


Exercise is recommended for everyone with cystic fibrosis. This may vary from taking part in normal school activities to individualised exercise programmes. Infants and toddlers with cystic fibrosis should have some exercise included in their normal daily routine.

Any sport or exercise that gets a person with cystic fibrosis moving is good, but if there are any concerns or worries, they should ask their physiotherapist.

Children and adults are also encouraged to include stretching exercises into their routine to mobilise the joints and muscles around their chest, back and shoulders, and to be aware of maintaining good posture.

Read more about exercise and health and fitness.

Lung transplants

In severe cases of cystic fibrosis, when the lungs stop working properly and all medical treatments have failed to help, a lung transplant may be recommended.

Both lungs need to be transplanted as they will both be affected by the condition. A lung transplant is a serious operation that carries certain risks, but it can greatly improve the length and quality of life for people with severe cystic fibrosis.

The British Transplantation Society estimated that on average around 9 out of 10 people will survive for at least a year after a transplant and 5 out of 10  will survive for at least five years (there have been reports of people living for 20 years or more after a transplant).

The outlook for people with cystic fibrosis is often better than average for transplant patients as they are often younger and in better health than other transplant candidates.

Read more about lung transplants.

Antibiotics are medicines that can be used to treat infections caused by micro-organisms, usually bacteria or fungi. Examples of antibiotics include amoxicillin, streptomycin and erythromycin.
Bronchodilator medicines are used to widen the airways of the lungs to help with breathing difficulties. An example is salbutamol.
Enzymes are proteins that speed up and control chemical reactions, such as digestion, in the body.
Genes contain information that you inherit from your parents, such as eye or hair colour. They are carried by chromosomes.
The heart is a muscular organ that pumps blood around the body.
Inflammation is the body’s response to infection, irritation or injury, which causes redness, swelling, pain and sometimes a feeling of heat in the affected area.
Lungs are a pair of organs in the chest that control breathing. They remove carbon dioxide from the blood and replace it with oxygen.
Physiotherapy is a treatment that uses physical movements, massage and exercise to relieve illness or injury.

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