Addison disease is a disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones.
Adrenocortical hypofunction; Chronic adrenocortical insufficiency; Primary adrenal insufficiency
The adrenal glands are small hormone-releasing organs located on top of each kidney. They are made up of an outer portion, called the cortex, and an inner portion, called the medulla.
The cortex produces three hormones:
- Glucocorticoid hormones (such as cortisol) maintain sugar (glucose) control, decrease (suppress) immune response, and help the body respond to stress.
- Mineralocorticoid hormones (such as aldosterone) regulate sodium and potassium balance.
- Sex hormones, androgens (male) and estrogens (female), affect sexual development and sex drive.
Addison disease results from damage to the adrenal cortex. The damage causes the cortex to produce hormone levels that are too low.
This damage may be caused by the following:
- The immune system mistakenly attacking the adrenal glands (autoimmune disease)
- Infections such as tuberculosis, HIV, or fungal infections
- Hemorrhage into the adrenal glands
Risk factors for the autoimmune type of Addison disease include other autoimmune diseases:
- Chronic thyroiditis
- Dermatis herpetiformis
- Graves' disease
- Myasthenia gravis
- Pernicious anemia
- Testicular dysfunction
- Type I diabetes
Certain rare genetic defects may also cause adrenal insufficiency.
Symptoms of Addison disease include:
- Chronic diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting
- Darkening of the skin in some places, causing the skin to look patchy
- Dizziness when standing up
- Extreme weakness, fatigue, and slow, sluggish movement
- Mouth lesions on the inside of a cheek (buccal mucosa)
- Salt craving
- Weight loss with reduced appetite
Exams and Tests
Laboratory tests may show:
- Increased potassium
- Low blood pressure, especially with a change in body position
- Low cortisol level
- Low serum sodium
- Low blood pH
- Normal sex hormone levels
Additional laboratory tests may be ordered.
Other tests may include:
Treatment with replacement corticosteroids will control the symptoms of this disease. These medicines usually need to be taken for life.
Never skip doses of your medication for this condition because life-threatening reactions may occur.
Your doctor may increase your dosage because of:
During an extreme form of adrenal insufficiency, called adrenal crisis, you must inject hydrocortisone right away. Treatment for low blood pressure is usually needed as well.
Some people with Addison disease are taught to give themselves an emergency injection of hydrocortisone during stressful situations. Always carry medical ID (card, bracelet, or necklace) that says you have adrenal insufficiency. The ID should also say the type of medicine and dosage you need in case of an emergency.
With hormone therapy, many people with Addison disease are able to lead a nearly normal life.
Complications can occur if you take too little or too much adrenal hormone.
Complications also may result from the following related illnesses:
- Hashimoto thyroiditis (chronic thyroiditis)
- Ovarian hypofunction or testicular failure
- Pernicious anemia
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if:
- You are unable to keep your medicine down due to vomiting.
- You have stress such as infection, injury, trauma, or dehydration. You may need to have your medication adjusted.
- Your weight increases over time.
- Your ankles begin to swell.
- You develop new symptoms.
- On treatment, you develop signs of Cushing syndrome
If you have symptoms of adrenal crisis, give yourself an emergency injection of your prescribed medication. If it is not available, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911.
Symptoms of adrenal crisis include:
- Abdominal pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Low blood pressure
- Reduced consciousness
Guber HA, Farag AF. Evaluation of endocrine function. In: McPherson RA, Pincus MR, eds. Henry's Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 24.
Stewart PM, Krone NP. The adrenal cortex. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 15.
Reviewed By: Brent Wisse, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Nutrition, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.