Page header image

Addison's Disease

What is Addison's disease?

Addison's disease happens when the adrenal glands do not work normally and do not make enough hormones. Addison's disease may also be called chronic adrenal insufficiency or hypocortisolism.

How does it occur?

The adrenal glands are located near the top of each kidney. They make several types of hormones, including corticosteroids. These hormones affect a number of body functions, including:

  • blood pressure
  • the levels of minerals, such as sodium and potassium, in the body
  • defenses against infection and stress
  • sugar levels in the blood.

The adrenal glands may stop making enough hormones when they are damaged by infection, cancer, or an autoimmune response. When the body has an autoimmune response, it starts to see a part of itself as foreign and attacks it. The adrenal glands may also stop working if you have been taking steroid medicine and then suddenly stop taking it.

The adrenal glands are controlled by the pituitary gland. Sometimes they stop making hormones if the pituitary gland stops working normally.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of Addison's disease may start slowly. They include:

  • tiredness
  • weakness
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • dizziness when you stand up after sitting or lying down
  • muscle aches
  • nausea, sometimes with vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • patches of darkened skin or unexplained "tanning."

You may not notice your symptoms until your body is stressed by an infection, injury, or surgery. The stress may cause what is called an Addisonian crisis. Without treatment, an Addisonian crisis can be fatal. Signs and symptoms of Addisonian crisis include:

  • sharp pain in the lower back, belly, or legs
  • loss of a lot of fluid from your body so that you are dehydrated
  • low blood pressure
  • low blood sugar
  • loss of consciousness.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You may have the following tests:

  • Blood tests. A blood test called an ACTH stimulation test will be done to check for Addison’s disease. ACTH is the pituitary hormone that causes the adrenal glands to make cortisol.

    First you will have tests to measure cortisol in your blood and urine. Then you will be given a dose of man-made ACTH to measure your body’s response to it. If you have Addison’s disease, no increase in cortisol will be found in your blood and urine after the ACTH has been given.

  • CT scan. A CT scan can show if the adrenal glands are damaged or destroyed by infection or autoimmune disease.

How is it treated?

Addison's disease is treated with replacement hormones. Your healthcare provider will prescribe a corticosteroid such as prednisone. You will need to take prednisone the rest of your life.

If the disease has affected the level of minerals in your body, your provider may also prescribe fludrocortisone. This medicine will help your body have a normal balance of sodium and potassium. You may be able to stop taking fludrocortisone after a while.

How long do the effects last?

Addison's disease is a lifelong condition. With proper treatment, crises may be avoided and you will be able to lead a normal life.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Be prepared for emergencies:
    • Carry a cortisol injection kit for emergencies. You might need an emergency shot of cortisol in situations where your body is stressed and needs stress hormones to help it respond properly—for example, if you are in an accident.
    • Get a Medic Alert bracelet that says, "Addison's disease: takes cortisone daily." Wear it at all times. It alerts healthcare workers to your need for careful monitoring and extra cortisol.
    • Make sure friends and family understand your condition and know to get emergency care for you in case of a serious illness or an accident.
  • Treat minor illnesses with extra salt and fluids. It is very important to avoid getting dehydrated.
  • Ask your healthcare provider what immunizations you need to help prevent infections.
  • Keep your regular follow-up appointments with your provider.
  • Call your provider right away if you have fever, vomiting, or diarrhea that lasts more than a couple of days. You may need treatment in an emergency room with IV fluids and hydrocortisone.
  • See your provider right away if you have any signs of infection, such as strep throat or bladder infections.

How can I help prevent Addison's disease?

There is no way to prevent Addison's disease.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-06-24
Last reviewed: 2010-02-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
Page footer image