Skip to Content

Addison Disease


What is Addison disease?

Addison disease is also called primary adrenal insufficiency. It is a condition where your adrenal glands do not make enough adrenal hormones. These hormones help your body deal with stress, keep blood pressure normal, and balance salt and fluids. They also control how your body uses sugars, fats, and proteins. Addison disease can lead to an adrenal crisis (Addisonian crisis) if your adrenal gland becomes badly damaged. This is life-threatening and needs immediate treatment.

What causes Addison disease?

  • Autoimmune disorders: This is the most common cause of Addison disease. A problem with your immune system may make your body attack your adrenal glands.
  • Cancer metastasis: Cancer cells from other organs can spread to your adrenal glands and cause damage.
  • Genetic conditions: You may have been born with genes that cause damage to your adrenal glands. Ask your healthcare provider for more information about the genetic disorders that may cause the condition.
  • Infections: These include fungal infections, tuberculosis, and infections that happen more often if you have a weak immune system. Ask your healthcare provider for information on other infections which may cause the condition.
  • Surgery: Surgery done to remove one or both of your adrenal glands may cause Addison disease.

What are the signs and symptoms of Addison disease?

Signs and symptoms may show up slowly over months or years. You may have any of the following:

  • Dizziness, weakness, and tiredness
  • Nausea, vomiting, decreased appetite, and weight loss
  • Depression or trouble thinking clearly
  • Muscle, joint, and back pain
  • Desire for certain foods such as licorice and salty things.
  • Loss of hair or white patches of skin on your body
  • Darkening of certain skin areas such as areas exposed to sun, nipples, genital area, and the inside your mouth

How is Addison disease diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask you about your health and medical history. This may include information about what signs and symptoms you have and when they started. You may need any of the following:

  • Blood tests: These tests tell your healthcare provider how high or low the levels of hormones are in your blood. Other blood tests may be done to give your healthcare providers more information about your health.
  • Chemical stimulation tests: Your blood will be tested first. Then you will be given a shot of chemicals that cause your adrenal glands to make hormones. After several minutes, the hormone levels in your blood are tested again. Ask your healthcare provider for information about this test.
  • Urine test: This test measures the amount of adrenal hormones in your urine.

How is Addison disease treated?

  • Steroid medicine: Steroids are given to balance the steroid hormone levels your adrenal glands naturally make. You may need to take this medicine for the rest of your life. You may need to change how much medicine you take when you are ill or have increased stress. Do not stop taking this medicine without talking to your healthcare provider. You can trigger an adrenal crisis if you stop taking steroids suddenly.

What are the risks of Addison disease?

You may have an allergic response to the medicines used to treat you. The medicines may cause you to gain weight or bruise easily. You may have fast heartbeats and muscle weakness. Over time, your bones may become brittle and break easier. If you do not treat Addison's disease or stop taking your medicine, you to have changes in behavior and delusions (hear voices). You can have an adrenal crisis if you do not take your medicine or do not get treatment. An adrenal crisis can make you lose body fluid and lower your blood pressure too much. This may cause you to go into a coma and you may die.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if:

  • You have a fever.
  • You have diarrhea or constipation.
  • You have nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain.
  • You sweat or urinate more than usual.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition, treatment, or care.

When should I seek immediate help?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You always feel dizzy when you stand up from a sitting or lying position.
  • You hear voices or see something that is not real.
  • You have severe pain in your stomach, waist, or back.
  • You have very dry skin, dry mouth and tongue, or feel more thirsty than normal.
  • Your symptoms become worse, even after you take medicine.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2017 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.