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What Is Addison’s Disease and How Does It Affect Your Health?

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Adrenal gland in kidney

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  • If a person suffers from Addison’s disease, it means that their two adrenal glands actually produce very little cortisol, as well as insufficient levels of aldosterone
  • This illness was named after Dr. Thomas Addison, who made its discovery in 1849 — he also suffered from this condition

Also known as primary adrenal insufficiency,1 adrenal insufficiency or hypoadrenalism, Addison's disease is a rare yet potentially deadly condition wherein the adrenal glands do not function properly.2 This illness was named after Dr. Thomas Addison, who made its discovery in 1849 — he also suffered from this condition.3

What Happens When Your Adrenal Glands Do Not Function Properly?

If a person suffers from Addison's disease, it means that their two adrenal glands don't produce enough cortisol. They also may be producing insufficient levels of aldosterone. This happens when the part of the adrenal glands called the adrenal cortex, which is responsible for these two hormones, is severely damaged.4

The damage may be brought on by several different factors, although the most common one is autoimmune reaction — the immune system is mistakenly attacking the adrenal glands. In 75 percent of Addison's disease cases, this autoimmune reaction is the primary cause.5

There is another type of disorder known as secondary adrenal insufficiency, wherein the pituitary gland, located near the base of the brain, fails to produce enough of the hormone ACTH, which is necessary for stimulating the adrenals to create cortisol. This can cause the adrenal glands to shrink and stop creating cortisol. According to WebMD, secondary adrenal insufficiency is actually more common than primary adrenal insufficiency (Addison's disease).6

Addison's Disease May Be Confused With Other Illnesses

Because its symptoms are quite common and may occur in other illnesses as well, many people do not immediately seek a physician to have themselves checked for Addison's disease. It's only when another factor, such as illness or surgery, pregnancy or an accident, worsens the symptoms does the disease become detected.

Addison's disease can occur in both males and females, and can affect any age group,7 although it is most commonly seen in adults ages 30 to 35 years old. In the United States, approximately 1 in 100,000 people are said to have this illness,8 or 100 to 140 in 1 million.9 There are also people who have a higher risk for this condition, namely:10

  • Cancer patients
  • People who take anticoagulants (blood-thinning medications)
  • Tuberculosis patients or people with other chronic infections
  • People who have an autoimmune disease like Graves' disease or Type 1 diabetes
  • Individuals who had surgery to remove any part of their adrenal gland

Treatment for Addison's disease depends on what's causing the condition, although the primary aim of conventional strategies depends on regulating the adrenal glands. Hormone replacements like corticosteroid and hydrocortisone, are commonly prescribed by conventional physicians, along with other medications like dexamethasone or prednisolone.11 However, there are safe lifestyle adjustments you can try to help manage this illness.

When Does Addison's Disease Become Life-Threatening?

If Addison's disease is not immediately diagnosed and the hormone imbalance is not managed, then the symptoms will worsen and may lead to adrenal failure, also known as Addisonian crisis. This will make you severely ill unless immediately addressed.

Some symptoms of adrenal crisis include changes in mental status, loss of consciousness, vomiting and diarrhea, high fever and low blood pressure levels. If you experience any of these hallmark symptoms, consult a physician immediately. If left untreated, adrenal crisis can lead to shock or death.12,13


Addison's Disease: Introduction

What Is Addison's Disease?

Addison's Disease Symptoms

Addison's Disease Causes

Addison's Disease in Children

Addison's Disease Test

Addison's Disease Treatment

Addison's Disease Prevention

Addison's Disease Diet

Addison's Disease FAQ

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