Your adrenal glands are located on top of your kidneys. These
glands produce many of the hormones that your body needs for normal functions. Addison’s
disease occurs when the adrenal cortex is damaged and the adrenal glands do not
produce enough of the steroid hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol
regulates the body’s reaction to stressful situations. Aldosterone helps with
sodium and potassium regulation. The adrenal cortex also produces sex hormones
Are the Symptoms of Addison’s Disease?
People who have Addison’s disease may experience the following
in the muscles
in skin color
loss or decreased appetite
decrease in heart rate or blood pressure
blood sugar levels
in the mouth
If Addison’s disease goes untreated for too long, it can become
an Addisonian crisis. An Addisonian crisis is a life threatening medical
emergency. Call 911 immediately if you or someone you know begins to
status changes (confusion, fear, or restlessness)
pain in the lower back, belly, or legs
An untreated Addisonian crisis can lead to shock and death.
Causes Addison’s Disease?
There are two major classifications for Addison’s disease:
primary adrenal insufficiency and secondary adrenal insufficiency. In order to
treat your 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 the 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.
- 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 gland 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.
Is at Risk for Addison’s Disease?
You may be at a higher risk for Addison’s disease if you:
- have cancer
- take coagulants (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’
Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and the
symptoms you’ve been experiencing. They will do a physical examination and they
may order some lab tests to check your potassium and sodium levels. Your doctor
may also order imaging tests and measure your hormone levels.
is Addison’s Disease Treated?
Your treatment will depend on what is causing your condition.
Your doctor may prescribe medications that regulate the adrenal gland.
Following the treatment plan that your doctor creates for you is
very important. Untreated Addison’s disease can lead to an Addisonian crisis.
If your condition has gone untreated for too long, and has progressed
to a life-threatening condition called Addisonian crisis, your physician may
prescribe medication to treat that first. Addisonian crisis causes low blood
pressure, high potassium in the blood, and low blood sugar levels.
You may need to take a combination of glucocorticoids medications
(drugs that stop inflammation) to improve your health. These medications will
be taken for the rest of your life and you cannot miss a dose.
Hormone replacements may be prescribed to replace hormones that your
adrenal glands are not making.
Keep an emergency kit that contains your medications on hand at
all times. Ask your doctor to write a prescription for an injectable
corticosteroid for emergencies. You may also want to keep a medical alert card
in your wallet and a bracelet on your wrist to let others know about your
It’s important to keep your stress level down if you Addison’s
disease. Major life events, such as a death of a loved one or an injury, can
raise your stress level and affect the way you respond to your medications. Talk
to your doctor about alternative ways to relieve stress, such as yoga and
Is Expected in the Long Term?
People with Addison’s disease will have to get treatment for the
rest of their lives. Treatments, such as hormone replacement medications, will
make symptoms more manageable.
As long as you follow the treatment plan your doctor creates for
you, it is possible to live a productive life.
Always take your medications exactly as directed. Taking too
little or too much medicine may be dangerous to your health. Your treatment
plan may need to be reevaluated and changed throughout your life. For this
reason, it’s important that you see your doctor regularly.