Cushing syndrome is a disorder that occurs when your body has a high level of the hormone cortisol.
Hypercortisolism; Cortisol excess
The most common cause of Cushing syndrome is taking too much glucocorticosteroid medicine. Prednisone, dexamethasone, and prednisolone are examples of this type of medicine. Glucocorticoids mimic the action of the body’s natural hormone cortisol. These drugs are used to treat conditions such as asthma, skin inflammation, cancer, bowel disease, joint pain, rheumatoid arthritis.
Other people develop Cushing syndrome because their bodies produce too much cortisol. This hormone is made in the adrenal glands. Causes of too much cortisol are:
- Cushing disease, which occurs when the pituitary gland makes too much of the hormone ACTH. ACTH then signals the adrenal glands to produce too much cortisol. A pituitary gland tumor can cause this condition.
- Tumor of the adrenal gland
- Tumor elsewhere in the body that produces corticotropin-releasing hormone
- Tumors elsewhere in the body that produce ACTH (ectopic Cushing syndrome)
Most people with Cushing syndrome will have:
- Round, red, full face (moon face)
- Slow growth rate in children
- Weight gain with fat accumulation on the trunk, but fat loss from the arms, legs, and buttocks (central obesity)
Skin changes that are often seen:
- Skin infections
- Purple marks (1/2 inch or more wide) called striae on the skin of the abdomen, thighs, and breasts
- Thin skin with easy bruising
Muscle and bone changes include:
- Backache, which occurs with routine activities
- Bone pain or tenderness
- Collection of fat between the shoulders and above collar bone
- Rib and spine fractures caused by thinning of the bones
- Weak muscles, especially of the hips and shoulders
Women with Cushing syndrome often have:
- Excess hair growth on the face, neck, chest, abdomen, and thighs
- Periods that become irregular or stop
Men may have:
- Decreased or no desire for sex
Other symptoms that may occur with this disease:
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and the medicines you are taking. Tell the provider about all medicines you have been taking for the past several months.
Laboratory tests that may be done to diagnose Cushing syndrome and identify the cause are:
- Blood cortisol levels
- Blood sugar
- Saliva cortisol levels
- Dexamethasone suppression test
- 24-hour urine for cortisol and creatinine
- ACTH level
- ACTH stimulation test
Tests to determine the cause or complications may include:
Treatment depends on the cause.
- Your doctor will instruct you to slowly decrease the medicine dosage. Stopping the medicine suddenly can be dangerous.
- If you cannot stop taking the medicine because of disease, your high blood sugar, high cholesterol levels, and bone thinning or osteoporosis should be closely monitored.
With Cushing syndrome caused by a pituitary or a tumor that releases ACTH (Cushing disease), you may need:
- Surgery to remove the tumor.
- Radiation after removal of a pituitary tumor in some cases.
- Cortisol replacement therapy after surgery and possibly for the rest of your life.
- You may need surgery to remove the tumor.
- If the tumor cannot be removed, you may need medicines to help block the release of cortisol.
Removing the tumor may lead to full recovery, but there is a chance that the condition will return.
Survival for people with ectopic tumors depends on the tumor type. Untreated, Cushing syndrome can be life-threatening.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of Cushing syndrome.
If you take a corticosteroid, know the signs and symptoms of Cushing syndrome. Getting treated early can help prevent any long-term effects of Cushing syndrome. If you use inhaled steroids, you can decrease your exposure to the steroids by using a spacer and by rinsing your mouth after breathing in the steroids.
McGee S. Cushing syndrome. In: Evidence-Based Physical Diagnosis. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders. 2012:chap 13.
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.
Susmeeta TS, Nieman LK. Cushing's syndrome: all variants, detection, and treatment. Endocrinol Metab Clin N Am. 2011;40:379-391.
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.