Addison’s Disease: Symptoms, Causes, Risks & Treatment

You have adrenal glands located top over your kidneys. They produce multiple hormones that your body needs to function normally.

Addison disease happens when the adrenal cortex gets damaged, and Adrenal glands don’t provide enough cortisol and aldosterone. (1)

Cortisol regulates how the body responds to stressful conditions. Aldosterone is used to regulate sodium and potassium. The adrenal cortex is also responsible for sexual hormones (androgens) production. (1.1)

What are the symptoms of Addison’s disease?

People with Addison’s disease can experience these symptoms:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • weakness in muscle
  • fatigue
  • tiredness
  • dark coloring of the skin
  • weight loss and loss of appetite
  • decreased heart rate/blood pressure
  • Blood sugar levels are down
  • sores in the mouth

People with Addison’s disease can also develop neuropsychiatric symptoms, including:

  • depression
  • energy shortage
  • not sleep properly

If Addison’s disease doesn’t get treated too long, This could be a Addisonian crisis. Symptoms related to an Addisonian crisis may include:

  • delirium
  • agitation
  • visual hallucinations
  • auditory hallucinations

An Addisonian crisis is a potentially fatal health emergency. Call 911 right away if you or a person you know starts the following experience:

  • high fever
  • changes in mental state, such as confusion, fear.
  • loss of consciousness
  • sudden pain in your lower back, abdomen or legs

An Addison crisis without treatment may result in shock and death.

What causes Addison’s disease?

There are two broad categories of Addison’s disease:

  • primary adrenal insufficiency
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency

In order to deal with the disease, your physician will need to know what type is responsible for your condition. (2)(3)

Primary adrenal insufficiency

Primary adrenal failure happens when your adrenal glands are so seriously damaged that they are unable to produce hormones. This type of Addison’s disease is most commonly induced when the immune system attacks the adrenals. This is referred to as an autoimmune disease or disorder.

In an autoimmune disorder, your body’s immune system confuses an organ or part of the body with a virus, bacterium or other external invader.

Additional causes of primary adrenal insufficiency include:

  • long-term glucocorticoid administration (e.g. prednisone)
  • infections within your body
  • cancer & abnormal growths (tumours)
  • some blood thinners for controlling blood clotting

Secondary adrenal insufficiency

Secondary adrenal insufficiency happens when the pituitary gland (located in your brain) is incapable of producing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is telling adrenal gland when to release hormones. (4)

Adrenal insufficiency can also develop if you are not taking the corticosteroid drugs prescribed by your physician. Corticosteroids are used to control chronic conditions such as asthma.

Numerous other causes of secondary adrenal insufficiency also exist, including:

  • genetics
  • tumors
  • medications
  • traumatic brain injury

Who is at risk for Addison’s disease?

You may have an increased risk of Addison’s disease if you:

  • have cancer
  • take blood thinners
  • long-term infections such as tuberculosis
  • has been surgically removed from your adrenal gland
  • have some autoimmune disease, like type 1 diabetes

Diagnosing Addison’s disease

Your doctor will have questions about your medical record. and any symptoms you are experiencing. They’re taking a physical exam, and they can order laboratory tests for your potassium and sodium levels. (4)

Your physician may also ask for imaging tests and measurement of your hormone levels.

How is Addison’s disease treated?

Your treatment will be determined by the cause of your disease. Your physician may prescribe medicines to regulate your adrenal glands.

It is important to follow the treatment plan that your physician puts in place for you. Untreated Addison’s disease may cause an Addisonian crisis.

If your condition has not been treated for too long and has evolved into a potentially fatal condition called an Addisonian crisis, your doctor may prescribe medications to treat this problem first.

The Addisonian crisis results in low blood pressure, high levels of potassium in the blood and low levels of sugar in the blood.

Medications

You may be required to take a combination of glucocorticoids (medicines that stop inflammation) to make you feel better and improve your health. These medicines will be taken for the rest of your life and you can not miss a dosage.

Replacement hormones can be prescribed as a replacement for hormones that your adrenal glands do not do.

Home care

Always keep an emergency kit that includes your medication. Ask your physician to prescribe an injectable corticosteroid in case of an emergency.

You can also keep a medical health alert card in your wallet and a wristband on your wrist to inform others of your status.

Alternative therapies

It is important that you maintain a low level of stress if you have Addison’s disease. Significant events, such as a loved one’s death or injury, can increase your stress level and affect how you react to your drugs. Discuss with your physician alternative ways of relieving stress, like yoga and meditation.

What is expected in the long term?

Addison’s disease needs a life-long cure. Treatments, like hormonal replacement drugs, may help to manage your symptoms.

Following your doctor’s plan of treatment is an important step to help you lead a productive life.

Be sure to always take your medicine exactly as directed. Taking too few or too many medicines may have a negative effect on your health.

It may be necessary for your treatment plan to be re-evaluated and adjusted to suit your condition. This is why it is important to check with your physician on a regular basis.

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