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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

Symptoms

Symptoms of cystic fibrosis usually appear within the first year of life. Sometimes symptoms do not appear until late childhood or adolescence.

The severity of symptoms varies. Some people have severe symptoms involving various organs. Others have a much milder form of the disease involving only one area of the body.

At birth, a child with cystic fibrosis can develop a swollen belly. He or she will vomit due to a condition called meconium ileus. In this condition, the bowel is plugged up with meconium. Meconium is a thick, dark, sticky substance produced by all babies while in the uterus. It is just stickier in a newborn with cystic fibrosis.

As the child grows, other symptoms can develop. These include:

  • Poor weight gain in spite of a good appetite. This is usually because of problems with digestion and the absorption of food. Absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) is especially poor.

  • Large, foul-smelling, fat-filled, "greasy" stools

  • Frequent episodes of diarrhea

  • A swollen belly with gas and discomfort

  • Repeated lung infections, leading to poor lung function

  • Repeated sinus infections

  • Wheezing and shortness of breath

  • Chronic cough, which can produce heavy, discolored mucus or blood

  • A salty "frosting" on the skin, or a salty taste when kissed

  • Delayed sexual development

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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