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What Is Addison’s Disease?

The information provided herein does not constitute an expert or medical advice, nor intended to replace such advice.

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There are many endocrine diseases that can affect your hormonal health. Addison’s disease is a type of endocrine disease that affects your adrenal glands. Keep reading to learn more about Addison’s disease symptoms, causes, and treatment.

Addison’s disease definition

Addison’s disease, also known as adrenal insufficiency, is a rare disorder that affects your adrenal or suprarenal glands. As the name suggests, your suprarenal glands are two small glands, each one located above one of your kidneys. According to the Mayo Clinic, Addison’s disease happens when your adrenal glands are unable to produce enough quantities of two hormones, called cortisol and aldosterone.

Cortisol works by regulating the way the human body responds to stress. It’s also involved in different processes, including:

  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar
  • Immune response
  • Cardiovascular function

Aldosterone, on the other hand, helps regulate your body’s sodium and potassium levels. This hormone is also involved in homeostasis and blood volume regulation. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, adrenal insufficiency can be either primary or secondary:

  • Primary adrenal insufficiency: this happens when the cortex of the adrenal glands is damaged and unable to produce hormones. 
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency: this condition occurs when your pituitary gland (a small gland at the base of your brain) doesn’t make enough of the hormone adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). ACTH works by stimulating the adrenal glands so that they produce enough hormones. Low levels of ACTH can result in adrenal insufficiency, even if the glands themselves aren’t damaged.

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Causes of Addison’s disease

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the causes of Addison’s disease include:

  • Adrenal gland injury
  • Infections
  • Adrenal gland bleeding
  • Surgical removal of the adrenal glands
  • Metastatic cancer into the adrenal glands
  • Amyloidosis (a disease that causes protein buildup in different organs)
  • Genetic defects

Addison’s disease and the immune system are closely related, since the large majority of cases of Addison’s disease are caused by autoimmune injury to the adrenal glands. This condition can happen at any age.

Addison’s disease signs and symptoms

The symptoms of Addison’s disease don’t develop suddenly. Instead, the condition develops slowly over the course of several months. It’s not uncommon for patients to ignore the signs of Addison’s disease until they experience a crisis. Stressful situations can trigger or worsen symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of Addison’s disease can include:

  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Salt cravings
  • Abdominal pain
  • Hyperpigmentation or dark patches of skin
  • Body hair loss
  • Bluish-black discoloration around the mouth, nipples, genitals, and/or rectum
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low blood sugar
  • Joint pain
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Irregular or absent periods (keep in mind that spotting can also be caused by other hormonal conditions or STDs. You can learn more about at-home STD testing here)

Addison’s disease typically causes alterations to your blood electrolyte levels. Addison’s disease can cause:

  • High potassium or hyperkalemia
  • Low sodium or hyponatremia
  • High calcium or hypercalcemia

If left untreated, patients can experience an Addison’s disease adrenal crisis, or acute adrenal failure. During an addisonian crisis, patients may experience:

  • Intense abdominal pain
  • Severe weakness
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Pain in your legs and/or lower back
  • Low blood pressure
  • Kidney failure
  • Altered state of consciousness
  • Shock

If you don’t know that you have Addison’s disease, it can be easy to confuse these symptoms for a different condition. Certain symptoms, such as Addison’s disease fatigue or abdominal pain, are very nonspecific and can be caused by a wide range of diseases. That’s why it’s very important to seek medical attention if you show any new symptoms or health concerns.

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Risk factors for Addison’s disease

Anyone can develop Addison’s disease, but there are certain factors that increase your likelihood of having this condition. According to UCLA Health, risk factors for Addison’s disease include:

How is Addison’s disease treated?

According to the NHS, the mainstay of Addison’s disease treatment involves taking hormones to replace the ones that you’re not producing on your own. In some cases, it may be possible to treat the underlying cause of Addison’s disease — such as an infection. But this isn’t possible when Addison’s is caused by an autoimmune reaction.

Corticosteroids are typically used to replace the hormones that you’re not making yourself. Some people also feel better when they increase their salt intake. You may also need to take other supplements.

Addison’s disease treatment side effects

As long as you take the dosages recommended by your physician, corticosteroid treatment for Addison’s disease shouldn’t have adverse effects on your long-term health. But when taken a higher dosages, corticosteroids can increase your risk of:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep problems

Certain symptoms, such as Addison’s disease and blood sugar or potassium levels, have to be closely monitored to prevent serious complications. If left untreated, Addison’s disease can be serious and even deadly. If you have any signs of a crisis, such as experiencing an addisonian crisis or rash, you should seek medical assistance immediately.

In addition to Addison’s disease, there are many other topics that you can learn more about in order to maintain your health. You can discover different health topics at STDWatch.com.

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Addison’s disease - mayoclinic.org

Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) - hopkinsmedicine.org

Addison’s Disease - my.clevelandclinic.org

Addison’s Disease - uclahealth.org

Treatment - Addison’s disease - nhs.uk

Dr. Andrea Pinto Lopez

Dr. Andrea Pinto Lopez

Jul 06, 2022

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