Cystic Fibrosis Diagnosis
Diagnosing cystic fibrosis takes several steps. Your healthcare provider may diagnose cystic fibrosis based on your symptoms and results of and sweat chloride tests.
It is important to diagnose cystic fibrosis as young as possible to start treatment early. Newborn screening makes it possible to detect the disease early in life. Early treatment helps prevent complications and can improve survival.
Universal newborn screening
All newborns in the United States are tested for cystic fibrosis. Newborn screening identifies more than half of cystic fibrosis cases. However, many people born before 2010 have not been screened.
Newborn screening for cystic fibrosis is performed during a baby’s first 2 to 3 days of life. A few drops of blood from a heel prick are placed on a special card and tested by a lab.
Every state and the District of Columbia begin screening with a blood test to check for levels of immunoreactive trypsinogen (IRT), a chemical made by the pancreas. In people who have cystic fibrosis, IRT tends to be high. However, most babies with high levels of IRT do not have cystic fibrosis. IRT can also be high for other reasons, such as if the baby was born preterm (premature), had a stressful birth, or is a carrier of cystic fibrosis.
Some states test only IRT for cystic fibrosis newborn screening. In other states, if IRT is high, then the hospital will test the baby’s DNA for some of the CFTR mutations that cause cystic fibrosis. After a positive screening test, diagnosis is confirmed with more tests.
Carrier screening to detect CFTR mutations
Genetic testing may be used to look for carriers ofCFTR genes and to screen relatives of people who have cystic fibrosis. Genetic testing looks at your DNA from a blood or saliva sample or cells from the inside of your cheek.
Genetic testing can tell you whether you are a carrier of a mutated CFTR gene. This is called carrier screening. It is your choice whether to have this test. People who inherit a mutation of the CFTR gene from one parent are cystic fibrosis carriers. People who have inherited a mutation of the CFTR gene from both parents will have cystic fibrosis. Learn more about how cystic fibrosis is inherited.
The standard test to check for cystic fibrosis carriers looks for 23 or more of the most common disease-causing gene mutations. If your test did not identify a CFTR mutation, there is still a small chance that you could carry a type of mutation that did not show up on the test.
Siblings (brothers and sisters) of a person who has cystic fibrosis may want to be tested for cystic fibrosis even if they do not have symptoms. Other family members, such as first cousins and half-siblings, may be tested if they have symptoms or if the family is concerned that those individuals might have cystic fibrosis or be carriers.
After a positive or unclear screening test result, the diagnosis should be confirmed with further testing. A genetic counselor can help you understand the meaning of your carrier screening result.
Preconception and prenatal screening
Genetic tests done before or during pregnancy can look for a mutated CFTR gene. The tests use a sample of blood, saliva, or cells from the inside of your cheek to check your DNA. It is your choice whether to have this screening. Talk with your healthcare provider about screening if you’re thinking about getting pregnant or if you’re already pregnant.
Couples who are planning to have children may want to be tested to see whether they are cystic fibrosis carriers. Getting tested before pregnancy gives you more options and more time to make decisions if results show that one or both parents has a mutated CFTR gene.
Often the mother is tested first. If the father has a family history of cystic fibrosis, he may be tested first. If one parent is a carrier for a CFTR gene mutation, then the next step is to test the other parent.
If you are already pregnant, both parents may be tested at the same time. If you are both cystic fibrosis carriers, then prenatal diagnostic testing may be performed to check the unborn baby for mutated CFTR genes.
A sweat test checks for high levels of chloride in your sweat. The sweat test is the standard test for diagnosing cystic fibrosis. It may be used if you have symptoms that could indicate cystic fibrosis or to confirm a positive diagnosis from a screening of your newborn baby. A normal sweat chloride test result alone does not mean you do not have cystic fibrosis. Lower levels of chloride may indicate the need for further testing to diagnose or rule out cystic fibrosis.
How is a sweat chloride test performed?
The sweat test detects a higher amount of chloride — a component of salt — in the sweat of people who have cystic fibrosis. In order to produce sweat for this test, a colorless, odorless chemical and a little electrical stimulation are applied to a small area of a person’s arm or leg. The sweat is collected and sent to a hospital lab for testing.