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What is Addison's Disease?

By Garry Crystal
Updated: May 17, 2024

Addison's disease is a condition linked to the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands, which are situated just above the kidneys, have two main functions. The inner part of the adrenal gland, called the medulla, produces the hormone adrenaline. The outer part of the gland is called the cortex and produces the body's steroids. Sufferers of Addison's have an impaired cortex, which leads to a deficiency or a complete lack of hormones.

The human body needs adrenaline in order to increase the metabolism in preparation for shock or trauma. The steroids produced by the cortex include cortisol, a stress-coping steroid. Another steroid produced by the cortex is aldosterone, which regulates the levels of salt in the blood. If levels of salt or sodium are irregular, then blood pressure problems will result. The cortex is also responsible for producing the male sex hormone testosterone.

In around 70% of people suffering from Addison's disease, the cause is related to the autoimmune system. This means that the immune system attacks the adrenal cortex as if it were foreign to the body. Around 30% of cases of destruction to the cortex are the result of infections, such as tumors and diseases. It has also been recognized that there may be hereditary conditions related to Addison's.

The symptoms of Addison's disease are wide ranging. The most common symptoms include extreme lethargy, a brown discoloration of the skin, and a high frequency of urination. Low blood pressure is another common symptom of this condition.

Other symptoms can include mood swings, a craving for salty foods, and muscle weakness. Loss of appetite and weight loss may also occur, as well as irregular periods in women. Tremors, dehydration, and numbness in the hands and feet have also been recorded as symptoms of Addison's disease.

Diagnosis of this condition is based on the symptoms and on the levels of hormones and steroids in the blood. A simple test consists of injecting the sufferer with adrenocorticotrophic hormone. In healthy people, an injection of this hormone will cause the levels of cortical hormones to rise. Sufferers of Addison's disease will show little or no reaction. Other blood tests check the levels of salt, sugar, and potassium in the blood.

Treatment of Addison's disease usually consists of a series of hormone replacement treatments. Steroid tablets may also be prescribed. It is very important that sufferers of Addison's disease carry some form of identification to inform others of the condition. Any major surgery, infection, or injury may cause an adrenal crisis that must be treated immediately.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon319399 — On Feb 12, 2013

I don't know if this is what I actually have or not, but at least now I know what kind of questions to ask my doctor.

By anon101609 — On Aug 04, 2010

with Addison's disease, it is not the case that doctors "may" prescribe steroids. Wither they do, or you die! They are crucial, every day of your life from diagnosis onward.

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