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Addison's Disease - Topic Overview

What are the symptoms? continued...

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 stress.

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 diarrhea.
  • Sudden pain in the belly, low back, or legs.
  • A high fever.
  • Feeling very weak or lightheaded.
  • Feeling restless, confused, or fearful.
  • 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.

How is Addison's disease diagnosed?

To diagnose Addison's disease, the doctor will ask about your health, such as if you have had cancer or have HIV or if you have a family history of Addison's disease. You'll also have a physical exam so the doctor can look for changes in your skin color, check your blood pressure, and look for signs of dehydration.

Your doctor may also order tests, such as:

  • Blood tests to check for high potassium or low sodium levels. Your cortisol and ACTH levels may be checked too.
  • ACTH stimulation test to see how your hormone levels react to stress.
  • Imaging tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI, to look for damage to the adrenal glands.

How is it treated?

Treatment includes medicine, self-care, and being prepared for when your body is under stress. If your doctor thinks that you have Addison's disease, he or she may start treatment right away, even before you get your test results.

Take your medicine as prescribed. You will need to take medicine for the rest of your life to replace the cortisol and aldosterone your body can't make on its own. You may take just one medicine, or you may need more than one.

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