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Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison's Disease)

What is adrenal insufficiency?

Adrenal insufficiency occurs when the adrenal glands don’t make enough of the hormone cortisol. You have two adrenal glands. They are located just above the kidneys. They work with the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain. Cortisol helps break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in your body. It also controls blood pressure and affects how your immune system works.

Adrenal insufficiency can be primary or secondary:

  • Primary adrenal insufficiency. This is known as Addison's disease. It occurs when the adrenal glands are damaged. They don’t make enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. This condition is rare. It may occur at any age.
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency. This starts when the pituitary gland doesn’t make enough of the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropin). As a result the adrenal glands don’t make enough cortisol.

What causes adrenal insufficiency?

Primary adrenal insufficiency is most often caused when your immune system attacks your healthy adrenal glands by mistake. Other causes may include:

  • Cancer
  • Fungal infections
  • Tuberculosis infection of the adrenal glands 
  • Inherited disorders of the endocrine glands

A lack of the hormone ACTH leads to secondary adrenal insufficiency. That can happen if you must take certain steroids for a long time due to a health problem. For example, people with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis may need to take prednisone. Other causes include:

  • Pituitary gland tumors
  • Loss of blood flow to the pituitary 
  • Pituitary gland is removed or you have radiation treatment of the pituitary gland
  • Parts of the hypothalamus are removed

What are the symptoms of adrenal insufficiency?

You may have mild symptoms when you are under physical stress. Each person’s symptoms will vary. Symptoms may include:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Dark skin (Addison's disease only)
  • Bluish-black color around the nipples, mouth, rectum, scrotum, or vagina (Addison's disease only)
  • Weight loss
  • Fluid loss (dehydration)
  • Lack of appetite
  • Muscle aches
  • Upset stomach (nausea)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low sugar levels
  • In women, irregular or no menstrual periods

If not treated, adrenal insufficiency may lead to:

  • Severe belly (abdominal) pain
  • Extreme weakness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Kidney failure
  • Shock

These symptoms may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is adrenal insufficiency diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history. You will also need an exam. Tests that can diagnose adrenal insufficiency include:

  • Blood and urine tests. These can check levels of the adrenal hormones and ACTH.
  • Imaging tests. These include X-rays, ultrasound, and MRI.

How is adrenal insufficiency treated?

Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment for you based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and past health
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle certain medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • How long the condition is expected to last
  • Your opinion or preference

You will need to take hormones to replace those that your adrenal glands are not making. That mainly means cortisol. But if you have Addison's disease, you may need to take aldosterone as well.

Addison's disease can be deadly. Treatment often starts with IV (intravenous) fluids and medicines called corticosteroids. You may take these medicines by mouth or by IV. You may have to take them for the rest of your life. You may also need to take other medicines (fludrocortisones). These can help keep your body's sodium and potassium levels normal.

What are the complications of adrenal insufficiency?

You may have sudden severe symptoms. This is called acute adrenal insufficiency, or Addisonian crisis. This can occur when your body is stressed. That can happen for many reasons, such as an illness, fever, surgery, or dehydration. You may also have a crisis if you stop taking your steroids or lower the amount of your steroids suddenly. The symptoms of an Addisonian crisis include the symptoms of adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease. But if an Addisonian crisis is not treated, it can lead to:

  • Shock
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Living with adrenal insufficiency

Take your medicine exactly as prescribed. You should also carry a medical alert card or tag at all times. This can make sure you get proper treatment if there is an emergency. When traveling always carry an emergency kit with a shot of cortisol.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Any condition that stresses your body can affect how much medicine you need. Call your healthcare provider if:

  • You have any kind of illness, especially a fever, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • You become pregnant
  • You need surgery

Get medical help right away if you have sudden severe symptoms (Addisonian crisis).

Key points about adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease)

  • Adrenal insufficiency occurs when the adrenal glands don’t make enough of the hormone cortisol.
  • The primary kind is known as Addison’s disease. It is rare. It is when the adrenal glands don’t make enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone.
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the pituitary gland doesn’t make enough of the hormone ACTH. The adrenal glands then don’t make enough cortisol.
  • Mild symptoms may be seen only when a person is under physical stress. Other symptoms may include weakness, fatigue, and weight loss.
  • You will need to take hormones to replace those that the adrenal glands are not making.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.