Addison's Disease

Addison's disease is a rare hormonal disorder that affects about one in 100,000 people. It occurs when the adrenal glands, located above each kidney, do not produce enough corticosteroids -- in particular, the hormone cortisol, and in some cases, the hormone aldosterone.
Cortisol's most important function is to help the body respond to stress. It also helps regulate your body's use of protein, carbohydrates and fat; helps maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function; and stems inflammation. Aldosterone helps your kidneys regulate the amount of salt and water in your body and, thus, regulate your blood pressure. When aldosterone levels drop too low, your kidneys cannot keep your salt and water levels in balance, and your blood volume and blood pressure drop.

There are two forms of Addison's disease: primary adrenal insufficiency, a problem with the adrenal glands themselves, and secondary adrenal insufficiency, a problem with the pituitary gland that, in turn, interferes with the adrenal glands. Also called chronic adrenal insufficiency or hypocortisolism, Addison's disease may occur at any age. Treatment involves use of synthetic steroids given in low doses. As long as replacement medication is taken daily, individuals with Addison's disease can live normal lives.


Symptoms generally develop slowly.

~Chronic fatigue and muscle weakness
~Loss of appetite, inability to digest food and weight loss.
~Low blood pressure that falls further when standing, causing dizziness or fainting
~Blotchy, dark pigment. Skin discoloration is more noticeable on body parts exposed to the sun and on the forehead, knees and elbows; scars and skin folds and creases (such as on the palms).
~Blood sugar disorders, including hypoglycemia
~Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
~Inability to cope with stress
~Moodiness, irritability and depression
~Intolerance to heat or cold
~Craving of salty foods, due to salt loss

Some of these symptoms may indicate conditions other than Addison's disease. If you experience any of the symptoms, talk with your doctor about whether Addison's disease or another condition may be the cause.

Addisonian Crisis Because symptoms of Addison's disease progress slowly, they may go unrecognized until a physically stressful event, such as another illness, surgery or an accident, causes them to become much worse suddenly. Such an acute episode of the disease is called an Addisonian crisis. In about 25 percent of patients with Addison's disease, symptoms first become apparent during this type of crisis. An Addisonian crisis is considered a medical emergency because left untreated it can be fatal. Symptoms of an Addisonian crisis include the following:

~Sudden penetrating pain in the lower back, abdomen or legs
~Severe vomiting and diarrhea, followed by dehydration
~Low blood pressure
~Loss of consciousness

Addison's disease is named after Thomas Addison (1795-1860), an English physician who first published a description of this endocrine condition in 1855. Dr. Addison did not name this disease after himself, even calling it "melasma suprarenale" at one point; this condition was named after him posthumously.

Some believe that one famous sufferer of Addison's Disease was Jane Austen. (see

Eponymous diseases

Ad"di*son's dis*ease" (#). [Named from Thomas Addison, M. D., of London, who first described it.] Med.

A morbid condition causing a peculiar brownish discoloration of the skin, and thought, at one time, to be due to disease of the suprarenal capsules (two flat triangular bodies covering the upper part of the kidneys), but now known not to be dependent upon this causes exclusively. It is usually fatal.


© Webster 1913.

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