What are the bowel symptoms of cystic fibrosis?

Cystic fibrosis causes thick and sticky mucous throughout the body, leading to serious, chronic and systemic health problems. Along with breathing and lung problems, bowel symptoms are a leading health complication related to cystic fibrosis. This sticky mucous blocks tubes and ducts leading to the pancreas, which prevents essential enzymes from reaching the intestines. These enzymes are essential for the absorption of protein and fats in the body. Therefore, someone with untreated cystic fibrosis has an abundance of fats and proteins in their bowel. This is the cause of gastrointestinal or bowel symptoms in people with cystic fibrosis.

The most common bowel symptom related to cystic fibrosis is diarrhea. Stools also commonly appear greasy, bulky and foul-smelling. Stools may also appear pale and clay-colored [source: PubMed Health]. Another common symptom is blockage of the intestines, which leads to excessive gas, constipation and stomach pain. Intestinal blockage is especially common in newborns with cystic fibrosis. A distended, or swollen, abdomen is the result of severe constipation. In newborn infants, not passing their first bowel movement within 24 to 48 hours of birth is characteristic of cystic fibrosis. Children with untreated cystic fibrosis also show poor weight gain and growth. As a result, infants may exhibit a condition called failure to thrive. Poor weight gain and growth is the result of nutritional deficiencies commonly seen in people with cystic fibrosis. Children with cystic fibrosis simply cannot get enough nutrients from the food they eat.


Bowel-related complications are also fairly common in adults with cystic fibrosis. Left untreated, cystic fibrosis can lead to pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is an inflamed pancreas and can be painful. Rectal prolapse, whereby rectal tissue detaches and moves up the gastrointestinal system, is another complication. In severe cases, people with cystic fibrosis can also develop liver disease, diabetes, and gallstones [source: NHLBI].