Definition

Addison's disease is a rare disorder of the adrenal glands. In the case of Addision's, the glands do not produce enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone.

Adrenal Glands

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Addison's occurs because of damage to the cortex.
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Causes

Addison's disease is the result of gradual damage to the adrenal cortex, the outer layer of the adrenal gland. This damage may be caused by:

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

Risk factors include:

Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Extreme weakness, fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Muscle weakness
  • Darkening of freckles, nipples, scars, skin creases, gums, mouth, nail beds, and vaginal lining
  • Emotional changes, especially depression
  • Craving for salty foods
  • Abdominal pain
  • Anorexia
  • Amenorrhea

A severe complication of Addison's disease is the Addisonian or adrenal crisis .

Symptoms include:

  • Severe abdominal, back, or leg pain
  • Fainting or semicomatose state
  • Severe low blood pressure
  • Severe dehydration
  • Severe nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Low blood sugar
  • Generalized muscle weakness

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be performed.

Tests may include:

  • Blood and urine tests—to see if you have low levels of cortisol and aldosterone, high level of ACTH (ACTH is a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands), and to measure levels of:
    • Anti-adrenal antibody
    • Sodium
    • Chloride
    • Calcium
    • Potassium
    • Bicarbonate
    • Blood urea nitrogen levels

  • ACTH stimulation test —measures cortisol in the blood and/or urine before and after an injection of ACTH
  • X-rays —pictures of the abdomen to see if the adrenal glands have signs of calcium deposits
  • CT scan of the abdomen—a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the body, in this case the adrenal glands

Treatment

Symptoms of Addison's disease can be controlled with medications. These drugs can replace the missing hormones. Medication needs to be taken for the rest of your life. They may be increased in times of stress.

Medications may include:

Immediate treatment of adrenal crisis includes:

  • Hydrocortisone
  • Salt water
  • Sugar

Maintenance

Regular blood tests are needed to monitor your response to medication. Wear a medical alert bracelet in case of an emergency.

Prevention

There are no guidelines for preventing Addison's disease. If you think you are at risk, talk to your doctor.