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Definition

What is Addison’s disease?

Your adrenal glands are located on top of your kidneys. These glands excrete plenty of hormones that your body needs for the normal functions. Addison’s disease occurs when the adrenal cortex is damaged and the inability of producing enough of the steroid hormones cortisol and aldosterone of the adrenal glands is inevitable. The function of cortisol is to regulate the body’s reaction to stressful situations. Aldosterone assists with sodium and potassium regulation. The adrenal cortex also produces sex hormones (androgens).

How common is Addison’s disease?

Also called adrenal insufficiency, Addison’s disease occurs in all age groups and affects both sexes. Addison’s disease can be life-threatening seriously.

However, it can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of Addison’s disease?

Individuals who have Addison’s disease may have some following symptoms:

  • Weakness in the muscles
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Darkening in skin color
  • Weight loss or decreased appetite
  • A decrease in heart rate or blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar levels
  • Fainting spells
  • Sores in the mouth
  • Cravings for salt
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability or depression

If Addison’s disease goes untreated for long period of time, it can become an Addisonian crisis. An Addisonian crisis is a life threatening medical emergency. Thus, seek medical help immediately is highly recommended if you or someone you know begins to experience:

  • Mental status changes (confusion, fear, or restlessness)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • High fever
  • Sudden pain in the lower back, belly, or legs

An untreated Addisonian crisis can lead to shock and death. 

When should I see my doctor?

Early diagnosis and treatment can stop this condition from worsening and prevent another medical emergency, so talk to your doctor as soon as possible to prevent this serious condition.

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consulting with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes Addison’s disease?

It is proven that there are two chief classifications for Addison’s disease: primary adrenal insufficiency and secondary adrenal insufficiency. To treat this 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 destroyed so severely that they can no longer produce hormones. This type of Addison’s disease is most often caused as your immune system destroys 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.

Some other causes of primary adrenal insufficiency include:

  • Prolonged administration of glucocorticoids (e.g. prednisone)
  • 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, which is located in your brain, can’t produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which tells the adrenal gland when to release hormones.

It is 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.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for Addison’s disease?

You may have a higher risk for Addison’s disease if you:

  • Have cancer
  • Take anticoagulants (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’ disease

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is Addison’s disease diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects that you may experience this condition, your doctor will as your history, a physical examination will be performed and some tests will be also recommended by your doctor. Tests and procedures used to diagnose Addison’s disease may include:

  • Blood test

Measuring your blood levels of sodium, potassium, cortisol and ACTH gives your doctor an initial indication of whether adrenal insufficiency may be causing your signs and symptoms. A blood test can also measure antibodies associated with autoimmune Addison’s disease.

  • ACTH stimulation test

This test involves measuring the level of cortisol in your blood before and after an injection of synthetic ACTH. ACTH signals your adrenal glands to produce cortisol. If your adrenal glands are damaged, the ACTH stimulation test shows that your output of cortisol in response to synthetic ACTH is limited or nonexistent.

  • Insulin-induced hypoglycemia test

Occasionally, doctors suggest this test if pituitary disease is a possible cause of adrenal insufficiency (secondary adrenal insufficiency). The test involves checking your blood sugar (blood glucose) and cortisol levels at various intervals after an injection of insulin. In healthy people, glucose levels fall and cortisol levels increase.

  • Imaging tests

Your doctor may have you undergo a computerized tomography (CT) scan of your abdomen to check the size of your adrenal glands and look for other abnormalities that may give insight to the cause of the adrenal insufficiency. Your doctor may also suggest an MRI scan of your pituitary gland if testing indicates you might have secondary adrenal insufficiency.

How is Addison’s disease treated?

Based on what is causing your condition, your treatment will be determined. 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.

  • Medications

You may need to take a combination of glucocorticoids medications (drugs that stop inflammation) to enhance 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.

  • Home Care

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 condition.

  • Alternative Therapies

It’s essential 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 meditation.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage Addison’s disease?

These steps may help you cope better with a medical emergency if you have Addison’s disease:

  • Carry a medical alert card and bracelet at all times
  • Keep extra medication handy
  • Stay in contact with your doctor

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: July 3, 2017 | Last Modified: July 3, 2017

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