Addison's Disease

Condition 101

What is the definition of Addison's Disease?

Addison's disease occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough (or any) of the hormones, cortisol and aldosterone. These adrenal gland hormones are necessary for balancing water and energy in the body. Symptoms usually develop slowly over time, and may include fatigue, loss of appetite, abdo ...

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What are the alternative names for Addison's Disease?

  • Addison disease
  • Adrenal hypoplasia
  • Hypoadrenocorticism familial
  • Adrenal aplasia
  • Adrenal gland hypofunction

What are the causes for Addison's Disease?

In most cases, Addison's disease is caused by damage to the adrenal cortex (the outer part of the adrenal gland) due to an autoimmune reaction. Less common causes of Addison's disease include repeated infections (such as fungal infections, tuberculosis or HIV), cancer that spreads to the adrenal glands, trauma, and amyloidosis. Rarely, Addison’s disease runs in families and may be due to a genetic predisposition.

What are the symptoms for Addison's Disease?

The following list includes the most common signs and symptoms in people with Addison's disease. These features may be different from person to person. Some people may have more symptoms than others and symptoms can range from mild to severe. This list does not include every symptom or feature that has been described in this condition.

Symptoms may include:
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mood or behavior changes
  • Dark patches of skin (hyperpigmentation)
  • Muscle weakness or pain
  • Dehydration
  • Low blood pressure
Symptoms typically start in the late teens or early twenties. An acute adrenal crisis can develop in response to stress. This is a medical emergency which can lead to shock or kidney failure if not treated promptly. Symptoms of a crisis include sudden weakness, severe pain, vomiting and diarrhea, and low blood pressure which can lead to fainting. With treatment, this condition does not change over time and the symptoms can be managed.

What are the current treatments for Addison's Disease?

Treatment for Addison's disease is focused on managing the symptoms. Treatment typically includes daily medicines (tablets) that replace the adrenal hormones, cortisol and aldosterone. Treatment for an adrenal crisis may include intravenous hydrocortisone, fluids, and electrolytes, as well as drugs that normalize blood pressure. People with Addison's disease should carry a medical ID that states the disease and emergency instructions.

How is Addison's Disease diagnosed?

Addison's disease may be diagnosed based on symptoms, a clinical exam, blood and urine tests that evaluate adrenal function.  In addition, imaging studies such as chest X-rays, and/or a CT scan may be used to look at the size and characteristics of the adrenal glands.

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