Addison’s disease affects your body’s adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system. The endocrine system is a group of glands all over your body that produce hormones to regulate your body’s processes, including your moods, growth, metabolism, and tissue function. The adrenal glands are located just above your kidneys. They produce hormones that affect how your body responds to stress.
In people who have Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands do not produce enough corticosteroid hormones, such as cortisol and aldosterone.
Addison’s disease is most common among people 30 to 50 years of age, but it can occur at any age and affects men and women equally. It is also called adrenal insufficiency or hypocortisolism.
The symptoms of Addison’s disease usually develop over a period of several months. Many of the symptoms of Addison’s disease are nonspecific. This means that at first, it may be hard for you or your doctor to figure out exactly what is wrong. Common symptoms of Addison’s disease may include:
Sometimes, the symptoms of Addison’s disease appear suddenly, or quickly get worse. This is called acute adrenal failure or an Addisonian crisis. It can cause death if it isn't treated. If you have any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor or go to an emergency room right away:
Addison’s disease is also called “adrenal insufficiency.” There are 2 types of adrenal insufficiency:
Primary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the adrenal gland is damaged and can’t produce enough hormones. This damage is usually caused by an autoimmune disease. Normally, your immune system produces antibodies to help protect the body against viruses, bacteria and other foreign substances. An autoimmune disease is when your immune system produces antibodies that attack one or more of your body's tissues and/or organs.
Other causes of primary adrenal insufficiency include:
Secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when you have another condition that causes the adrenal gland to fail to produce enough hormones. For example, a problem with your pituitary gland can cause secondary Addison’s disease. Or, you may develop Addison’s disease if you suddenly stop taking a corticosteroid medicine (such as prednisone). Corticosteroids are sometimes prescribed for treatment of conditions such as asthma, allergies, arthritis, cancer, and immune system problems.
Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and your symptoms. He or she may also perform laboratory tests to determine whether you have Addison’s disease:
Treating Addison’s disease usually involves taking prescription corticosteroids to replace the hormones your body is not making. If your body is not making enough cortisol, your doctor may prescribe hydrocortisone, prednisone, or cortisone acetate. If your body is not making enough aldosterone, your doctor may prescribe fludrocortisone. These medicines are taken every day by mouth (in pill form).
Your doctor may also recommend that you take a medicine called dehydroepiandrosterone. Some women who have Addison’s disease find that taking this medicine improves their mood and sex drive.
If you are experiencing an Addisonian crisis, you need immediate medical care. The treatment typically consists of intravenous (IV) injections of hydrocortisone, saline (salt water), and dextrose (sugar). These injections help restore blood pressure, blood sugar, and potassium levels to normal.
If you have Addison’s disease, you need to prepare for the possibility of a medical emergency (Addisonian crisis):
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff