What is Addison’s Disease?
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, 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 produced by your naturally made hormones.
What are the Symptoms of Addison’s Disease?
People who have Addison’s disease may experience the 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
- irritability or depression
If Addison’s disease goes untreated for too long, it can become an Addisonian crisis. An Addisonian crisis is a life threatening medical emergency. Call 911 immediately 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
What Causes Addison’s Disease
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. Addison's disease occurs when the cortex is damaged and doesn't produce its hormones in adequate quantities. Doctors refer to the condition involving damage to the adrenal glands as 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.
How to Diagnosis Addison’s Disease
Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. They will do a physical examination and they may order some lab tests to check your potassium and sodium levels. Your doctor may also order imaging tests and measure your hormone levels.
What are the Treatments for Addison’s Disease
Your treatment will depend on what is causing your condition. 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. If your condition has gone untreated for too long, and has progressed to a life-threatening condition called Addisonian crisis, your physician may prescribe medication to treat that first. Addisonian crisis causes low blood pressure, high potassium in the blood, and low blood sugar levels.
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.