Addison’s Disease

What is Addison’s Disease?

Addison’s disease (adrenal insufficiency) is a potentially life-threatening condition that happens when the adrenal glands fail to manufacture adequate amounts of essential hormones (cortisol or aldosterone).

The adrenal glands are attacked by either the body’s own immune system, an infection, cancer or another disease. The cause is chromosomal in babies and children, but it can strike people in all age groups. High doses of corticosteroids can also cause insufficient hormone levels. Adrenal insufficiency effects the balance of sodium, water and potassium, and it affects how the body manages blood pressure and physical stress.

What are the Symptoms of Addison’s Disease?

In the earliest stages, Addison’s disease can be hard to identify. It takes a series of tests at various times to confirm the diagnosis.

Symptoms include

  • Excessive fatigue
  • Lack of appetite
  • Depression
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Sensitivity to cool temperatures
  • Dark patches of skin
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting spells
  • Salt cravings
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Stomach pain
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pain
  • Feelings of irritability
  • Female sexual dysfunction
  • Female body hair loss

Causes of Addison’s Disease

The cause of Addison’s Disease depends on how the hormone insufficiency is classified. The doctor will classify it as either a primary adrenal insufficiency or a secondary adrenal insufficiency.

Primary adrenal insufficiency is the more common classification. It occurs when the adrenal glands stop producing hormones because they have been damaged in some way.

The most common sources of damage include:

  • An autoimmune disease attacking the adrenal glands
  • Prolonged use of medications like prednisone (a glucocorticoid medication that is commonly prescribed by doctors)
  • Adrenal gland infections
  • Tuberculosis
  • Cancer, tumors, or other abnormal grows
  • Some blood thinners

A secondary insufficiency happens when the pituitary gland (located in the brain) stops producing ACTH. ACTH is the hormone that tells the adrenal glands when the body needs to produce hormones. This insufficiency occurs far less often and can be caused when individuals who use corticosteroids as part of treatment for chronic conditions (think asthma or arthritis) stop using them all at once.

How is Addison’s Disease Treated?

The treatment of Addison’s disease requires hormone replacement therapy. Replacement hormones are taken orally or intravenously. Fludrocortisone pills are also usually prescribed to help regulate the body’s natural output of potassium and salt. Sodium intake may be increased, especially during times of strenuous physical activities, when perspiring more than usual and/or when vomiting or experiencing diarrhea. Hormone replacement drugs may be increased during physically demanding times and when fighting illness or infection.

An Addison’s crisis can cause dangerously low blood pressure, marked weakness, renal failure and extreme abdominal pain. Without proper treatment, Addison’s disease can be fatal.

Prevention of Addison’s Disease

Efforts at prevention of Addison’s disease are focused on treatment of the conditions that cause it (as listed above) and limiting its risk factors.

Individuals are at higher risk of getting Addison’s disease if:

  • They have cancer (because the risk of it spreading to the adrenal glands)
  • They take blood thinners
  • They have chronic infections (like tuberculosis)
  • They have ever had surgery for removing any part of their adrenal glands (there is less of the gland to produce hormones)
  • They have been diagnosed with autoimmune diseases (like Graves Disease or type 1 diabetes, for example)

Once someone has been diagnosed, Addison’s disease is a life-long condition with no cure. Prevention efforts at that point are directed towards managing a patient’s flare-ups and reducing stress for sufferers.

Last Reviewed:
September 11, 2016
Last Updated:
June 10, 2018