Enjoying the benefits of salt water for cystic fibrosis patients

A recent trip to Hawaii had a powerful effect on our daughter

Jennifer Chamberlain avatar

by Jennifer Chamberlain |

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A banner illustration depicting a woman holding her baby daughter at a beach for Jennifer Chamberlain's column

Recently, we went on a trip with my husband’s family to Maui, Hawaii. The trip came after a particularly stressful two months of being displaced from our home. I was looking forward to relaxing and unplugging. But I was most excited about how our daughter with cystic fibrosis (CF), Claire, would react to the salty air.

Our first trip to Maui in 2022 had been scary. Within hours of landing on the island, Claire’s nose started pouring out a thick mucus. It was something I’d never seen before, and it wouldn’t stop. Convinced she was starting to get sick, I called our clinic on the mainland. To my surprise, they told me it was likely normal given the environmental factors — most notably, the extremely salty air and ocean water.

The proven benefits of salt water

Hypertonic saline, a solution that contains a higher concentration of salt than is naturally found in the body, is a proven therapeutic tool for CF. Multiple clinical trials have revealed the benefits associated with its use.

Two parallel studies involved preschool-age children with CF. The first trial, known as SHIP, compared an inhaled 7% hypertonic saline solution with an inhaled 0.9% isotonic saline solution over 48 weeks. Results showed that treatment with hypertonic saline improved lung function.

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The other study, called SHIP-CT, tested the same two solutions in preschool children over the same period of time. In this trial, however, researchers also took chest CT scans of the kids at the beginning and end of the 48 weeks. Results showed that the children who were given hypertonic saline were significantly less likely to have structural lung damage.

So what’s the science behind the benefits of salt water? In people with CF, mutations in the CFTR gene result in the CFTR protein being unable to move salt and water properly throughout the body, resulting in the production of thick, sticky secretions. When hypertonic saline is administered, the mucus rehydrates, loosens, and, over time, becomes less likely to harbor bacterial loads.

How salt water benefits our daughter

For many with the disease, including our daughter, hypertonic saline is part of their daily inhaled medication routine. Claire started using hypertonic saline at the lower 0.9% concentration as a baby and has now graduated to the highest concentration, 7%, at 5 years old. We’re also fortunate to live near the ocean in California. We visit the beach often. Yet I’ve never seen quite the same reaction as when we go to Maui.

For that reason, we decided to skip Claire’s hypertonic saline treatments during our time there. I’m not advocating deviating from your treatment plan. During our trip, however, Claire was spending hours in the water and on the beach. She was visibly clearing a ton of mucus from her body. We felt comfortable skipping treatments after seeing the amazing effect that the salt air had on her lungs. If only we could get insurance to cover some beach trips in the future!

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, Bionews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


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