What is Addison's disease?
develops when the
adrenal glands, which are above the kidneys, are not
able to make enough of the
hormones cortisol and, sometimes, aldosterone.
Your body needs both of these hormones to work as it should. Cortisol helps the body cope with extreme physical stress from illness,
injury, surgery, childbirth, or other reasons. Aldosterone helps the body hold
on to the salt it needs, and it keeps your blood pressure steady.
Normally, the level of these hormones increases through a chain reaction. First, the hypothalamus in the brain makes a hormone that the pituitary gland needs to make another hormone called ACTH. ACTH then tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol or aldosterone. But with Addison's disease, the adrenal glands can't make enough of the hormones.
If you have Addison's disease, you need to take medicine for the rest of your life to replace the hormones your body can't make. If you don't treat the disease, an adrenal crisis may occur that can lead to death because of a steep drop in blood pressure.
What causes Addison's disease?
- When the body's
immune system kills off the part of the adrenal glands
that makes cortisol and aldosterone. This is the most common cause.
- When the adrenal glands
are harmed by:
- Infections, such as
HIV, and other bacterial or fungal infections.
- Cancer that has spread to the adrenal
glands. This is mostly seen in lung cancer.
- Bleeding into the
adrenal glands as a side effect of using blood
types of surgery or radiation treatments.
- The use of certain
medicines, such as high doses of ketoconazole.
- If you
steroid medicine for a long time and then suddenly
stop using it.
People can get Addison's disease at any age.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms
- Extreme tiredness.
- Losing weight without
You may also have other symptoms, such as:
- Skin that looks darker than
- Loss of appetite.
- Feeling sick to your stomach or
- Craving salt.
If you have
diabetes, you may have low blood sugar more often, and
it may be more severe than usual.
Symptoms usually start slowly.
You may not even notice them until your body is under extreme stress, such as when a severe
infection, trauma, surgery, or dehydration causes an adrenal crisis. An adrenal
crisis means that your body can't make enough cortisol to cope with the
In a few cases, Addison's disease gets worse quickly. These
people may already be in an adrenal crisis when they see a doctor.
What happens during an adrenal crisis?
During an adrenal crisis, the body can't make enough cortisol to deal with extreme physical stress. This can cause:
- Severe vomiting and
- Sudden pain in the belly, low back, or
- A high fever.
- Feeling very weak or
- Feeling restless, confused, or
- Trouble staying awake.
Call your doctor right away if you have these symptoms. If
an adrenal crisis isn't treated, you could die of
shock from a steep drop in blood pressure.