What Are Complementary and Alternative Treatments For Cystic Fibrosis?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2022

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) remains popular throughout the U.S., including for people with cystic fibrosis (CF). CAM covers a wide range of herbal products, teas, nutritional supplements, pain relief techniques, and more.

Being cautious with complementary and alternative medicine

However, people with CF must be careful about the herbal and nutritional supplements they take. Some supplements are known to interact poorly with antibiotics and other medicines, cause the medicines to be less effective, or cause adverse reactions. Many supplements claim health benefits that are not backed by reputable scientific research.

Also, some supplements are made from plants that may aggravate allergies. For instance, echinacea may cause an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to ragweed or plants in the daisy family. Slippery elm, which is marketed as an expectorant, should not be used by people allergic to plants in the elm tree family.1 A look at some of the more common CAM or holistic therapies people with cystic fibrosis are known to use.


Research supports the claim that ginger tea helps calm nausea and vomiting. Ginger may increase the risk of bleeding if used with anticoagulant drugs and may lower blood sugar in those on diabetic drugs.1 Mint tea is another traditional home remedy for nausea.

Thyme tea is marketed as an expectorant and treatment for bronchitis. Little research has been done to support these claims but there is some support for the idea that thyme works as an expectorant. Regardless, thyme is generally considered safe as a tea.1

Teas made of eucalyptus leaves are another herbal supplement marketed as an expectorant. More research is needed to verify this claim. Eucalyptus should not be given to children.1

Holistic practices

Many people with cystic fibrosis use complementary practices such as aromatherapy, yoga, massage, acupuncture, meditation, chiropractic, essential oils, reflexology, and reiki. None of these seem to interfere with conventional treatments and often provide great relief for pain, anxiety, and depression while improving overall well-being.

One small study found that 87.5% of parents thought prayer and sanctified objects such as prayer blankets helped their children with CF. This study also reported that a few parents thought scented candles and incense combined with prayer helped their children relax.2 However, scented products are known to trigger lung inflammation for people with lung issues, whether that is CF, asthma, or COPD, and should be used with caution.

Aromatherapy massage, reflexology and reiki services are provided by some hospitals in Great Britain for CF patients. It is used to help relieve anxiety, tension, pain, insomnia, and depression.3

One small study showed that yoga lowered anxiety and joint pain among teens with CF during and immediately after sessions.4

Air purifiers and humidifiers

One Canadian study found that 79% of parents of children with CF used air purifiers and humidifiers.1

Air purifiers help remove dust, allergens, and pollution from the air, which can help anyone with lung disease, including those with CF or asthma. Humidifiers, which increase the amount of moisture in dry air, can make it easier for those with CF to breathe. This can be particularly helpful for those living in dry climates.5

It is especially important to clean purifiers and humidifiers frequently and completely to prevent them from becoming homes for mold.

Nutritional supplements

Omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics remain popular among people with CF, just like much of the rest of the population. However, because nutritional supplements are not regulated in the U.S., the quality among brands can vary widely. That is why it is important to check with your medical team about which brands they recommend.6 Zinc, with its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties, has been shown to reduce the number of days oral antibiotics were needed to treat respiratory infections in children with CF, but this data has been disputed and may be inconclusive.7 Zinc can interfere with absorption of certain antibiotics, so check with a healthcare professional before taking it.

Before beginning any CAM

Discuss any complementary or holistic therapies you may be interested in with your medical team. They may be able to refer you to yoga, acupuncture, and massage practitioners who are experienced in working with people with CF. They will also help you avoid herbal supplements that interfere with your medicines, or that are costly yet provide little benefit.

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