Oral care for patients with cystic fibrosis


This clinical feature outlines the systemic manifestations, pharmacological management and dental management of patients with cystic fibrosis.

Aim: To outline the systemic manifestations and pharmacological management of cystic fibrosis. Oral manifestations and considerations for the provision of dental care are also addressed.
Methods: A literature search was conducted to identify medical and dental manifestations of cystic fibrosis. These findings were then used to provide recommendations regarding the provision of dental care for people with cystic fibrosis.
Results: Cystic fibrosis is a multiorgan condition. There are no known disease-specific contraindications for the provision of dental treatment. However, dentists can implement protocols to facilitate and encourage regular dental attendance.
Conclusion: Further research should be conducted to assess the oral health of people with cystic fibrosis, notably caries and periodontal status, so that, if necessary, appropriate care strategies and guidelines can be developed.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a chronic condition caused by a mutation of the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene. Ireland has the highest incidence of CF in the world, with one in 1,461 live births reported as CF positive and a carrier rate for the CFTR mutation reported at one in 19.1 The pulmonary and gastrointestinal systems are primarily affected; however, disease manifestations are seen across multiple organ systems (Table 1).

Mutations of the CFTR gene affect chloride ion channel function, which leads to the dysregulation of epithelial fluid secretions. Hyperproduction of thick mucous secretions causes obstructions of organs. People with CF (PWCF) experience recurrent or chronic pulmonary infections due to impaired mucociliary clearance, which allows pathogens to accumulate.2 Childhood pathogens responsible for pulmonary infections, such as Haemophilus influenzae and Staphylococcus aureus, are superseded by Pseudomonas aeruginosa in adolescence. This pathogen is the predominant cause of pulmonary mortality and morbidity in CF.3

Gastrointestinal (GI) complaints predominantly arise from mucous inspissation and dysmotility. Nutritional failure (Table 2) is a primary concern for PWCF, with multiple studies showing that nutritional status is a strong predictor of morbidity and mortality.4 Pancreatic enzyme insufficiency affects approximately 85% of PWCF. It causes malabsorption and maldigestion of nutrients and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.5 CF-associated liver disease (CFLD) affects approximately 30-50% of patients, with symptoms generally developing before or during adolescence. CFLD is characterised by slow disease progression and manifestations can vary from mild asymptomatic high levels of liver enzymes to cirrhosis.6CF-related bone disease has been reported in up to 15% of PWCF. Causes include:6

  • CFTR gene mutation;
  • vitamin D deficiency;
  • nutrition deficiency;
  • diminished production of sex hormones;
  • increased inflammatory cytokines; and,
  • glucocorticoid therapy.

Oral manifestations
Oral manifestations of CF are outlined in Table 3. The dysfunction of the CFTR gene, recurrent systemic infection and long-term antibiotic use have all been linked to the formation of developmental defects of enamel.7 Clinical consequences of such defects include:

  • hypersensitivity;
  • aesthetic concerns;
  • increased risk of erosion; and,
  • increased risk of caries.

Up to 81% of adults with CF experience gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD),8 which further increases the risk of erosion and caries. Current research provides conflicting results regarding the caries and periodontal risk status of PWCF. Studies indicate a lower caries prevalence in children with CF, which has been attributed to paediatric antibiotic treatment reducing levels of cariogenic bacteria. Adolescents and adults show equal or higher caries incidence compared to non-CF patients.9

Multiple risk factors may predispose PWCF to oral candida. These include:

  • impaired salivary gland function;
  • inhalation antibiotic and steroid therapy; and,
  • high carbohydrate diet.

Medical management
Medical treatment is a lifelong commitment involving a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals. Multifaceted developments in treatment have led to an improvement in quality of life and an increase in the median age of survival from 36.6 years to 44.4 years over the last decade.10 Mainstay daily treatments for the symptomatic relief of CF include inhaled and oral medications (Figure 1), and airway clearance.
Malnutrition is prevented with pancreatic enzyme replacement supplements and increased calorie intake. Increased calories are met with nutritional supplements and grazing dietary habits, which in turn increase caries risk (Figures 2, 3 and 4).
Gene therapy drugs such as Orkambi, Kalydeco and, more recently, Kaftrio, have significantly advanced CF treatment by targeting the underlying genetic mutation (Figure 5). Their indications and efficacy depend upon an individual’s CFTR variant.11

figure 1

FIGURES 1: Routinely prescribed inhalation therapies.

figure 2

FIGURE 2: CREON pancreatic enzyme replacement supplement.

Figure 3

FIGURE 3: Paravit vitamin supplement often taken to combat malnutrition.

Clinical featurefigure4

FIGURE 4: Desunin and Altavita D3, both used to prevent and treat vitamin D3 deficiency.

FIGURE 5: Kalydeco gene modulator therapy.

FIGURE 5: Kalydeco gene modulator therapy.

Dental treatment
Dental treatment can be provided safely to PWCF in a general dental setting. Currently there are no disease-specific contraindications for the provision of dental care to these patients. However, dental practitioners should be aware of complications that may arise from comorbidities:

  • vitamin deficiencies;
  • liver disease; and,
  • bone disease.

Prolonged postoperative bleeding can arise in cases of vitamin K deficiency and CFLD through disruption of hepatic synthetic function.12 CF-related bone disease treated with bisphosphonate therapy is accompanied by the risk of medication-related osteonecrosis of the jaw post extraction.

Dental prescribing
Dental analgesia is essential for PWCF, with several studies reporting an explicit interaction between pain and a restriction to perform physiotherapy and exercise.13 Local anaesthetic can be used in accordance with the usual precautions. In the absence of severe renal impairment and hepatic failure paracetamol is well tolerated for pain management. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen have been used in the systemic pain management of CF; however, for the management of odontogenic pain they should be used prudently. Opioid analgesics for dental pain should be avoided due to their potential to cause pulmonary depression, reduced bowel movement and constipation. Caution should be exercised when prescribing antibiotics as allergic reactions are more common in PWCF than in the general population. This is due in part to increased exposure.14

Considerations for dental practice
As previously discussed, routine dental treatment offers few problems specific to CF. Nevertheless, dental practitioners can implement additional measures to facilitate and safeguard these patients. These measures include:

  • appointment allocation to minimise patient-to-patient contact, e.g., first appointment of the day – this is particularly relevant amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and in an aerosol-laden environment;
  • appointments for non-sibling PWCF should not be scheduled on the same day to minimise the risk of transmission of pathogens, notably P. aeruginosa, between patients;
  • limiting treatment provision to a single allocated surgery;
  • ensuring that all staff members do not have any transmissible illness, e.g., colds, coughs;
  • enforcing meticulous cross-infection control and dental chair waterline disinfection;
  • shorter appointment times and regular breaks during treatment; and,
  • providing dental treatment with the patient in an upright or semi-upright position in the dental chair to facilitate the clearance of airway secretions (Figure 6).
Figure 7 Patient in chair

FIGURE 6: Provision of dental treatment with patient in an upright position.

Continuity of care
Despite major advances in the medical management of CF, solid organ transplantation remains a viable treatment option for end-stage pulmonary disease. Dental assessment and appropriate treatment are considered in most transplant centres to be a compulsory prerequisite for solid organ transplantation. Continuity of dental care throughout a patient’s life is incredibly important as an exacerbation or flare-up of an odontogenic or periodontal infection can lead to the postponement or cancellation of transplant surgery. A comprehensive understanding of the primary disease, disease complications and disease management will allow dental practitioners to provide dental treatment in a safe, effective and reassuring environment for patients with CF.


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Dr Fiona O'Leary

Dr Fiona O’Leary

F. O’Leary, N. Coffey,
M. Hayes, F.M. Burke
Cork University Dental School and Hospital, University College Cork

Corresponding author: Dr Fiona O’Leary, Restorative Dentistry, Cork University Dental School and Hospital, University College Cork E: fiona.oleary@ucc.ie T: 021-490 1100