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Quick Facts

Addison Disease

(Addison's Disease; Adrenal Insufficiency)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2020| Content last modified Oct 2020
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Glands make and release hormones.

Hormones are chemicals that stimulate other cells or tissues into action. Because hormones are in your blood, they travel throughout your body. They can affect many organs at the same time.

You have two adrenal glands, one above each kidney. The adrenal glands release several different hormones that help control your blood pressure, heart rate, balance of water and salt, response to stress, and some male-type sex features.

What is Addison disease?

In Addison disease, your adrenal glands don't make enough adrenal hormones.

  • Addison disease is usually caused by your immune system attacking your adrenal glands

  • Symptoms come on slowly

  • You feel weak and tired all the time and may get dizzy when you stand up

  • Your skin may develop dark areas, like an uneven tan

  • Doctors give you hormone pills to replace the ones you're missing

  • You’ll need to take the hormones for the rest of your life

What causes Addison disease?

Addison disease is usually due to a problem with your adrenal glands, including:

Sometimes Addison disease is caused by a problem with your pituitary gland. Your pituitary gland releases many hormones, including a hormone that tells the adrenal glands to make its hormones. If you have an underactive pituitary gland, your adrenals may stop making hormones.

What are the symptoms of Addison disease?

Symptoms of Addison disease start slowly and usually include:

  • Feeling weak and tired

  • Feeling dizzy when you stand up

  • Loss of appetite

  • Feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up

  • Diarrhea

Sometimes you also have:

  • Darkening of your skin

  • Black freckles on your face and shoulders

  • Dark blue spots inside your mouth, rectum, or vagina

What's an adrenal crisis?

A crisis is a serious emergency.

An adrenal crisis is a life-threatening, sudden worsening of Addison disease.

Your body needs adrenal hormones to respond to stresses like a serious injury or illness. Without enough adrenal hormones, injury or illness puts stress on your body and can cause an adrenal crisis. You could have:

  • Severe belly pain

  • Severe muscle weakness

  • Dangerously low blood pressure

How do doctors tell if I have Addison disease?

Doctors will do blood tests to measure:

  • Sodium and potassium levels

  • Adrenal and pituitary hormone levels

Sometimes doctors inject you with pituitary hormones to see if your adrenal glands can respond to them.

How do doctors treat Addison disease?

Doctors will prescribe:

  • Two types of adrenal hormones

You'll need to take extra adrenal hormones if you get sick.

If you have adrenal crisis you will need:

  • IV fluids

  • High IV doses of adrenal hormones

Doctors will suggest that you keep these with you at all times:

  • A card or bracelet that says you have Addison disease and lists your medicines

  • A shot of hydrocortisone for sudden stressful situations

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