Addison’s disease, symptoms, causes and risks

Addison’s disease, also called adrenal insufficiency, is an uncommon disorder that occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones. In Addison’s disease, your adrenal glands, located just above your kidneys, produce too little cortisol and, often, too little aldosterone. Addison’s disease occurs in all age groups and both sexes, and can be life-threatening. Treatment involves taking hormones to replace those that are missing. Following are the Addison’s disease, symptoms, causes and risks.

Symptoms of Addison’s disease

Addison’s disease symptoms usually develop slowly, often over several months. Often, the disease progresses so slowly that symptoms are ignored until a stress, such as illness or injury, occurs and makes symptoms worse. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weight loss and decreased appetite
  • Darkening of your skin (hyperpigmentation)
  • Low blood pressure, even fainting
  • Salt craving
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • Nausea, diarrhea or vomiting (gastrointestinal symptoms)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscle or joint pains
  • Irritability
  • Depression or other behavioral symptoms
  • Body hair loss or sexual dysfunction in women

Acute adrenal failure (addisonian crisis)

Sometimes the signs and symptoms of Addison’s disease may appear suddenly. Acute adrenal failure (addisonian crisis) can lead to life-threatening shock. Seek emergency medical treatment if you experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Severe weakness
  • Confusion
  • Pain in your lower back or legs
  • Severe abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea, leading to dehydration
  • Reduced consciousness or delirium

In an addisonian crisis you will also have:

  • Low blood pressure
  • High potassium (hyperkalemia) and low sodium (hyponatremia)

Causes of Addison’s disease

There are two major classifications for Addison’s disease: primary adrenal insufficiency and secondary adrenal insufficiency. In order to treat the disease, your doctor will need to find out which type is responsible for your condition.

Primary adrenal insufficiency

Primary adrenal insufficiency occurs when your adrenal glands are damaged so severely that they can no longer produce hormones. This type of Addison’s disease is most often caused when your immune system attacks your adrenal glands. This is called an autoimmune disease.

In an autoimmune disease, your body’s immune system mistakes any organ or area of the body for a virus, bacteria, or another outside invader.

Other causes of primary adrenal insufficiency include:

  • prolonged administration of glucocorticoids (e.g. prednisone)
  • infections in your body
  • cancer and abnormal growths (tumors)
  • certain blood thinners used to control clotting in the blood

Secondary adrenal insufficiency

Secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the pituitary gland (located in your brain) can’t produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH tells the adrenal glands when to release hormones.

It’s also possible to develop adrenal insufficiency if you do not take the corticosteroid medications your doctor prescribes. Corticosteroids help control chronic health conditions like asthma.

There are also many other causes of secondary adrenal insufficiency, including:

  • tumors
  • medications
  • genetics
  • traumatic brain injury

Risks of Addison’s disease

You may be at a higher risk for Addison’s disease if you:

  • have cancer
  • take anticoagulants (blood thinners)
  • have chronic infections like tuberculosis
  • had surgery to remove any part of your adrenal gland
  • have an autoimmune disease, like type 1 diabetes or Graves’ disease

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