(See also Overview of Adrenal Function Overview of Adrenal Function The adrenal glands, located on the cephalad portion of each kidney (see figure Adrenal glands), consist of a Cortex Medulla The adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla each have separate endocrine... read more .)
Adrenal virilism is caused by
Malignant adrenal tumors may secrete excess androgens, cortisol, or mineralocorticoids (or all three). If there is cortisol hypersecretion, Cushing syndrome Cushing Syndrome Cushing syndrome is a constellation of clinical abnormalities caused by chronic high blood levels of cortisol or related corticosteroids. Cushing disease is Cushing syndrome that results from... read more results, with suppression of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) secretion and atrophy of the contralateral adrenal as well as hypertension.
Adrenal hyperplasia is usually congenital; delayed virilizing adrenal hyperplasia is a variant of congenital adrenal hyperplasia Overview of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is a group of genetic disorders, each characterized by inadequate synthesis of cortisol, aldosterone, or both. In the most common forms, accumulated hormone precursors... read more . Both are caused by a defect in hydroxylation of cortisol precursors; cortisol precursors accumulate and are shunted into the production of androgens. The defect is only partial in delayed virilizing adrenal hyperplasia, so clinical disease may not develop until adulthood.
Effects depend on the patient’s sex and age at onset and are more noticeable in women than in men.
Female infants with congenital adrenal hyperplasia Overview of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is a group of genetic disorders, each characterized by inadequate synthesis of cortisol, aldosterone, or both. In the most common forms, accumulated hormone precursors... read more may have fusion of the labioscrotal folds and clitoral hypertrophy resembling male external genitalia, thus presenting as a disorder of sexual differentiation.
In prepubertal children, growth may accelerate. If untreated, premature epiphyseal closure and short stature occur. Affected prepubertal males may experience premature sexual maturation.
Adult females may have amenorrhea, atrophy of the uterus, clitoral hypertrophy, decreased breast size, acne, hirsutism, deepening of the voice, baldness, increased libido, and increased muscularity.
In adult males, the excess adrenal androgens may suppress gonadal function and cause infertility. Ectopic adrenal tissue in the testes may enlarge and simulate tumors.
Adrenal virilism is suspected clinically, although mild hirsutism and virilization with hypomenorrhea and elevated plasma testosterone may also occur in polycystic ovary syndrome Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) Polycystic ovary syndrome is a clinical syndrome characterized by mild obesity, irregular menses or amenorrhea, and signs of androgen excess (eg, hirsutism, acne). Most patients have multiple... read more (Stein-Leventhal syndrome). Adrenal virilism is confirmed by showing elevated levels of adrenal androgens.
In adrenal hyperplasia, urinary dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and its sulfate (DHEAS) are elevated, pregnanetriol (a metabolite of 17-hydroxyprogesterone) excretion is often increased, and urinary free cortisol is normal or diminished. Plasma DHEA, DHEAS, 17-hydroxyprogesterone, testosterone, and androstenedione may be elevated. A 17-hydroxyprogesterone level of > 30 nmol/L (1000 ng/dL) 30 minutes after administration of cosyntropin (synthetic ACTH) 0.25 mg IM strongly suggests the most common form of adrenal hyperplasia.
Virilizing tumors are excluded if dexamethasone 0.5 mg orally every 6 hours for 48 hours suppresses production of excess androgens. If excessive androgen excretion is not suppressed, CT or MRI of the adrenals and ultrasonography of the ovaries are done to search for a tumor.
Glucocorticoids are used for adrenal hyperplasia, typically oral hydrocortisone 10 mg on arising, 5 mg at midday, and 5 mg in the late afternoon. Alternatively, dexamethasone 0.5 to 1 mg orally may be given at bedtime, but even these small doses may cause signs of Cushing syndrome; therefore, this form of glucocorticoid is generally not recommended. Giving the dose at bedtime is most appropriate in terms of suppressing ACTH secretion but may cause insomnia. Cortisone acetate 25 mg orally once a day or prednisone 5 or occasionally up to 10 mg orally once a day can be used instead. Although most symptoms and signs of virilism disappear, hirsutism and baldness disappear slowly, the voice may remain deep, and fertility may be impaired.
Tumors require adrenalectomy. For patients with cortisol-secreting tumors, hydrocortisone should be given preoperatively and postoperatively because their nontumorous adrenal cortex will be atrophic and suppressed.
Adrenal virilism is due to an androgen-secreting adrenal tumor or to adrenal hyperplasia.
Virilization is more noticeable in women; men may be infertile due to suppressed gonadal function.
Urinary and plasma dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and its sulfate (DHEAS) and often plasma testosterone are elevated.
Dexamethasone suppression testing and/or adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulation testing may be done.
Hyperplasia is treated with corticosteroid therapy; tumors require adrenalectomy.