The limitations of sweat electrolyte reference intervals for the diagnosis of cystic fibrosis: a systematic review

Clin Biochem Rev. 2007 May;28(2):60-76.


The sweat test has been used for more than 50 years for the diagnosis of cystic fibrosis (CF) and remains an important diagnostic test in the genomic era. The currently used reference intervals for sweat electrolytes are applied to all patients regardless of age or sex. We performed a systematic review to summarise the studies with published reference values of sweat electrolyte concentrations for the diagnosis of CF. The MEDLINE (from 1950), EMBASE (from 1980) and PubMed (from 1950) databases were searched for English language studies. An abstract was also found by hand-searching. The search generated 1136 articles that matched the search key terms. Of these, 17 studies that contained data on sweat electrolyte concentrations were included in the analysis. Among these, seven studies did not perform the sweat test in accordance with current international and Australian guidelines. Of the ten remaining studies, four reported both the sweat sodium and chloride concentrations and six reported sweat chloride concentration only. A major limitation of these studies was the subject selection. Most recruited patients with various medical conditions including respiratory diseases or undefined recruitment criteria, whilst some did not report the subjects' age and some had small subject numbers. Only one study performed mutation analysis to determine carrier status. No study used appropriate statistical analysis to develop a sweat chloride reference interval. The literature review yielded no studies that reliably developed reference intervals for sweat electrolyte concentrations. The limitations of the studies highlight the need for reliable age-related reference intervals for sweat electrolyte concentrations in healthy subjects.