Addison's disease is a disorder that occurs when your body produces insufficient amounts of certain hormones produced by your adrenal glands. In Addison's disease, your adrenal glands produce too little cortisol and often insufficient levels of aldosterone as well.
Also called adrenal insufficiency or hypocortisolism, Addison's disease occurs in all age groups and affects both sexes. Addison's disease can be life-threatening.
Treatment for Addison's disease involves taking hormones to replace the insufficient amounts being made by your adrenal glands, in order to mimic the beneficial effects those naturally made hormones would normally produce.
Addison's disease symptoms usually develop slowly, often over several months, and may include:
Acute adrenal failure (addisonian crisis)
When to see a doctor
Your doctor can determine whether Addison's disease or some other medical condition may be causing these problems.
Addison's disease results when your adrenal glands are damaged, producing insufficient amounts of the hormone cortisol and often aldosterone as well. These glands are located just above your kidneys. As part of your endocrine system, they produce hormones that give instructions to virtually every organ and tissue in your body.
Your adrenal glands are composed of two sections. The interior (medulla) produces adrenaline-like hormones. The outer layer (cortex) produces a group of hormones called corticosteroids, which include glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids and male sex hormones (androgens).
Some of the hormones the cortex produces are essential for life — the glucocorticoids and the mineralocorticoids.
Primary adrenal insufficiency
The failure of your adrenal glands to produce adrenocortical hormones is most commonly the result of the body attacking itself (autoimmune disease). For unknown reasons, your immune system views the adrenal cortex as foreign, something to attack and destroy.
Other causes of adrenal gland failure may include:
Secondary adrenal insufficiency
Another more common cause of secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when people who take corticosteroids for treatment of chronic conditions, such as asthma or arthritis, abruptly stop taking the corticosteroids.
Perched atop each of your kidneys, your adrenal glands produce hormones that help regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure and other essential functions. Although small, these glands ...
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to an endocrinologist.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions ahead of time will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For Addison's disease, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor will talk to you first about your medical history and your signs and symptoms. If your doctor thinks that you may have Addison's disease, you may undergo some of the following tests:
Treatments and drugs
All treatment for Addison's disease involves hormone replacement therapy to correct the levels of steroid hormones your body isn't producing. Some options for treatment include:
An ample intake of sodium is recommended, especially during heavy exercise, when the weather is hot, or if you have gastrointestinal upsets, such as diarrhea. Your doctor will also suggest a temporary increase in your dosage if you're facing a stressful situation, such as an operation, an infection or a minor illness.
Coping and support
These steps may help you cope better with a medical emergency if you have Addison's disease:
Last Updated: 2010-06-17
© 1998-2014 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Terms and conditions of use