What is Addison's disease?

You have adrenal glands on each of your kidneys. These glands release hormones your body needs to work properly. Addison's disease happens when your adrenal glands don't make enough of an important hormone in your body. This hormone is called cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for many functions in your body. These include your ability to handle stress, process nutrients in food and maintain steady blood pressure. Sometimes, people with Addison's disease don't produce enough of another hormone called aldosterone. This also helps your body keep your blood pressure under control.

Causes of Addison's disease

Addison's disease happens when you have damage to your adrenal glands. A variety of conditions and factors might cause the gland damage that leads to Addison's disease. These can include having:

  • Tuberculosis
  • An infection in the glands
  • Unexplained bleeding in the glands

If you take medicines called corticosteroids for asthma or arthritis and stop taking them, you may also damage your adrenal glands.

Risk factors for Addison's disease

If you have an autoimmune disease, you're at greater risk for Addison's disease. Autoimmune diseases cause your body to attack its own healthy tissues. Experts aren't sure exactly why this happens. You might have had cancer that affects your adrenal glands. This also raises your risk.

Symptoms of Addison's disease

It can be difficult to recognize the symptoms of Addison's disease. Normal symptoms include feeling very tired and weak all the time. You might lose your appetite or lose weight when you aren't trying to. Half of people with Addison's disease have trouble digesting food, feel nausea and get sick.

Other symptoms of Addison's disease include:

  • Dark patches of tanned skin, even in places that aren't exposed to sunlight
  • Extreme dizziness from low blood pressure
  • Having trouble handling stress
  • Feeling very cold or very hot
  • Salt cravings
  • Depression 

Diagnosis of Addison's disease

One in four people with Addison's disease may develop what's known as an Addisonian crisis. This is often when they first get diagnosed with Addison's disease. This potentially fatal situation might include:

  • Sudden pain in your lower back
  • Loss of consciousness
  • A feeling of shock
  • Severe vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Fever

It takes time to stabilize your health after this type of crisis. Your doctor might need to wait to perform tests for a diagnosis. At that point, you may receive an ACTH stimulation test. This tests the rise of certain hormones in your blood or urine within an hour of a special injection. If your levels aren't normal, your doctor may order a second test. This your hormone levels over the course of a few days. There are other tests that your doctor may order as part of the diagnosis process. These include a CT scan. This test shows your doctor the inside of your body. They can examine your pituitary gland.

Treatments for Addison's disease

Once you get a diagnosis, you may need to replace the hormones that your body hasn't been producing. Usually, people take cortisol and aldosterone pills. Other treatments for Addison's disease include:

  • Getting an injection of hormones and salt or sugar supplements
  • Increasing your salt intake – especially when you're sweating a lot – if you're also taking aldosterone

Generally, people who notice their Addison's disease early are able to live normal, productive lives. However, you may need to increase your medication. This is likely when you're under additional stress, are having surgery or are injured.

Recovery from Addison's disease

If you're living with Addison's disease, carry a medical alert card or wear a bracelet. These alert emergency personnel about your condition. You should always have extra medication with you, especially when you're traveling. Keep a needle and injectable form of your medicine nearby in case of an emergency at all times. Finally, be sure to talk regularly with your doctor. They can help ensure that you have the proper dosage of your medicine.

Find an endocrinologist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you