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Addison's disease


Addison's disease

Addison's disease
Classic hyperpigmentation as seen in Addison's disease
Classification and external resources
Specialty Endocrinology
ICD-10 E27.1-E27.2
ICD-9-CM 255.4
DiseasesDB 222
MedlinePlus 000378
eMedicine med/42
MeSH D000224

Addison’s disease (also Addison disease, chronic adrenal insufficiency, hypocortisolism, and hypoadrenalism) is a rare, chronic endocrine system disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient steroid hormones (glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids). It is characterised by a number of relatively nonspecific symptoms, such as abdominal pain and weakness, but under certain circumstances, these may progress to Addisonian crisis, a severe illness which may include very low blood pressure and coma. An adrenal crisis often occurs if the body is subjected to stress, such as an accident, injury, surgery, severe infection or illness; death may quickly follow.

The condition arises from problems with the adrenal gland, primary adrenal insufficiency, and can be caused by damage by the body's own immune system, certain infections, or various rarer causes. Addison's disease is also known as chronic primary adrenocortical insufficiency, to distinguish it from acute primary adrenocortical insufficiency, most often caused by Waterhouse–Friderichsen syndrome. Addison's disease should also be distinguished from secondary and tertiary adrenal insufficiency, which are caused by deficiency of ACTH (produced by the pituitary gland) and CRH (produced by the hypothalamus), respectively. Despite this distinction, Addisonian crises can happen in all forms of adrenal insufficiency.

Addison's disease and other forms of hypoadrenalism are generally diagnosed via blood tests and medical imaging.[1] Treatment involves replacing the absent hormones (oral hydrocortisone and fludrocortisone).[2] Lifelong, continuous steroid replacement therapy is required, with regular follow-up treatment and monitoring for other health problems.[1]

Addison’s disease is named after Thomas Addison, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh Medical School who first described the condition in 1849. The adjective "Addisonian" is used to describe features of the condition, as well as people with Addison’s disease.[1]


  • Signs and symptoms 1
    • Addisonian crisis 1.1
  • Causes 2
    • Adrenal destruction 2.1
    • Adrenal dysgenesis 2.2
    • Impaired steroidogenesis 2.3
  • Diagnosis 3
    • Suggestive features 3.1
    • Testing 3.2
  • Treatment 4
    • Maintenance 4.1
    • Crisis 4.2
  • Epidemiology 5
  • Prognosis 6
  • History 7
    • Discovery and development 7.1
    • Notable cases 7.2
  • Other animals 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Signs and symptoms

The negative feedback loop for glucocorticoids

The symptoms of Addison's disease develop gradually and may become established before they are recognized. The most common ones are fatigue; lightheadedness upon standing or difficulty standing; muscle weakness; fever; weight loss; anxiety; nausea; vomiting; diarrhea; headache; sweating; changes in mood or personality; and joint and muscle pains. Some patients have cravings for salt or salty foods due to the loss of sodium through their urine.[1] Hyperpigmentation of the skin may be seen, particularly when the patient lives in a sunny area, as well as darkening of the palmar crease, sites of friction, recent scars, the vermilion border of the lips, and genital skin.[3] This is not encountered in secondary and tertiary hypoadrenalism.[2]

On physical examination, the following clinical signs may be noticed:[1]

Addison's disease is associated with the development of other autoimmune diseases, such as type I diabetes, thyroid disease (Hashimoto's thyroiditis), and vitiligo. The presence of Addison's in addition to one of these is called called autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome.

Addisonian crisis

An "Addisonian crisis" or "adrenal crisis" is a constellation of symptoms that indicates severe adrenal insufficiency. This may be the result of either previously undiagnosed Addison's disease, a disease process suddenly affecting adrenal function (such as adrenal hemorrhage), or an intercurrent problem (e.g. infection, trauma) in someone known to have Addison's disease. It is a medical emergency and potentially life-threatening situation requiring immediate emergency treatment.

Characteristic symptoms are:[4]


Causes of adrenal insufficiency can be categorized by the mechanism through which they cause the adrenal glands to produce insufficient cortisol. These are adrenal dysgenesis (the gland has not formed adequately during development), impaired steroidogenesis (the gland is present but is biochemically unable to produce cortisol) or adrenal destruction (disease processes leading to glandular damage).[1]

Adrenal destruction

Autoimmune adrenalitis is the most common cause of Addison's disease in the industrialised world. thyroid and pancreas, may also be affected.[6]

Adrenal destruction is also a feature of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), and when the adrenal glands are involved in metastasis (seeding of cancer cells from elsewhere in the body, especially lung), hemorrhage (e.g. in Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome or antiphospholipid syndrome), particular infections (tuberculosis, histoplasmosis, coccidioidomycosis), or the deposition of abnormal protein in amyloidosis.[7]

Adrenal dysgenesis

All causes in this category are genetic, and generally very rare. These include mutations to the SF1 transcription factor, congenital adrenal hypoplasia (CAH) due to DAX-1 gene mutations and mutations to the ACTH receptor gene (or related genes, such as in the Triple A or Allgrove syndrome). DAX-1 mutations may cluster in a syndrome with glycerol kinase deficiency with a number of other symptoms when DAX-1 is deleted together with a number of other genes.[1]

Impaired steroidogenesis

To form cortisol, the adrenal gland requires cholesterol, which is then converted biochemically into steroid hormones. Interruptions in the delivery of cholesterol include Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome and abetalipoproteinemia.

Of the synthesis problems, congenital adrenal hyperplasia is the most common (in various forms: 21-hydroxylase, 17α-hydroxylase, 11β-hydroxylase and 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase), lipoid CAH due to deficiency of StAR and mitochondrial DNA mutations.[1] Some medications interfere with steroid synthesis enzymes (e.g. ketoconazole), while others accelerate the normal breakdown of hormones by the liver (e.g. rifampicin, phenytoin).[1]


Suggestive features

Routine laboratory investigations may show the following:[1]


In suspected cases of Addison's disease, demonstration of low adrenal hormone levels even after appropriate stimulation (called the ACTH stimulation test) with synthetic pituitary ACTH hormone tetracosactide is needed for the diagnosis. Two tests are performed, the short and the long test. It should be noted that dexamethasone does not cross-react with the assay and can be administered concomitantly during testing.

The short test compares blood cortisol levels before and after 250 micrograms of tetracosactide (intramuscular or intravenous) is given. If, one hour later, plasma cortisol exceeds 170 nmol/l and has risen by at least 330 nmol/l to at least 690 nmol/l, adrenal failure is excluded. If the short test is abnormal, the long test is used to differentiate between primary adrenal insufficiency and secondary adrenocortical insufficiency.

The long test uses 1 mg tetracosactide (intramuscular). Blood is taken 1, 4, 8, and 24 hr later. Normal plasma cortisol level should reach 1000 nmol/l by 4 hr. In primary Addison's disease, the cortisol level is reduced at all stages, whereas in secondary corticoadrenal insufficiency, a delayed but normal response is seen.

Other tests may be performed to distinguish between various causes of hypoadrenalism, including renin and adrenocorticotropic hormone levels, as well as medical imaging - usually in the form of ultrasound, computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging.

Adrenoleukodystrophy, and the milder form, adrenomyeloneuropathy, cause adrenal insufficiency combined with neurological symptoms. These diseases are estimated to be the cause of adrenal insufficiency in about 35% of male patients with idiopathic Addison’s disease, and should be considered in the differential diagnosis of any male with adrenal insufficiency. Diagnosis is made by a blood test to detect very long chain fatty acids.[8]


Corticosteroids to replace cortisols not secreted by the adrenal glands.


Treatment for Addison's disease involves replacing the missing cortisol, sometimes in the form of hydrocortisone tablets, or prednisone tablets in a dosing regimen that mimics the physiological concentrations of cortisol. Alternatively, one-quarter as much prednisolone may be used for equal glucocorticoid effect as hydrocortisone. Treatment is usually lifelong. In addition, many patients require fludrocortisone as replacement for the missing aldosterone.

People with Addison's are often advised to carry information on them (e.g., in the form of a MedicAlert bracelet or information card) for the attention of emergency medical services personnel who might need to attend to their needs.[9][10] It is also recommended that a needle, syringe, and injectable form of cortisol be carried for emergencies.[10] People with Addison's disease are advised to increase their medication during periods of illness or when undergoing surgery or dental treatment.[10] Immediate medical attention is needed when severe infections, vomiting, or diarrhea occur, as these conditions can precipitate an Addisonian crisis. A patient who is vomiting may require injections of hydrocortisone instead.[11]


Standard therapy involves intravenous injections of glucocorticoids and large volumes of intravenous saline solution with dextrose (glucose). This treatment usually brings rapid improvement. If intravenous access is not immediately available, intramuscular injection of glucocorticoids can be used. When the patient can take fluids and medications by mouth, the amount of glucocorticoids is decreased until a maintenance dose is reached. If aldosterone is deficient, maintenance therapy also includes oral doses of fludrocortisone acetate.[12]


The frequency rate of Addison's disease in the human population is sometimes estimated at roughly one in 100,000.[13] Some research and information sites put the number closer to 40-60 cases per million population. (1/25,000-1/16,600)[14] (Determining accurate numbers for Addison's is problematic at best and some incidence figures are thought to be underestimates.[15]) Addison's can afflict persons of any age, gender, or ethnicity, but it typically presents in adults between 30 and 50 years of age.[16] Research has shown no significant predispositions based on ethnicity.[14]


With proper medication, especially hormone replacement therapy, patients can expect to live relatively normal lives.[17]


Discovery and development

Addison’s disease is named after Thomas Addison, the British physician who first described the condition in 'On the Constitutional and Local Effects of Disease of the Suprarenal Capsules (1855).[18] All of Addison's six original patients had tuberculosis of the adrenal glands.[19] While Addison's six patients in 1855 all had adrenal tuberculosis, the term "Addison's disease" does not imply an underlying disease process.

The condition was initially considered a form of anemia associated with the adrenal glands. Because little was known at the time about the adrenal glands (then called "Supra-Renal Capsules"), Addison’s monograph describing the condition was an isolated insight. As the adrenal function became better known, Addison’s monograph became known as an important medical contribution and a classic example of careful medical observation.[20]

Notable cases

United States president John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), probably the single most famous case of Addison's disease
  • United States President John F. Kennedy was one of the best-known people with Addison's disease and was possibly one of the first to survive major surgery.[21] Substantial secrecy surrounded his health during his years as president.[22]
  • Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of John F. Kennedy's sisters, was believed to have Addison's disease as well.[23]
  • Popular singer Helen Reddy[24]
  • Scientist Eugene Merle Shoemaker, co-discoverer of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.[25]
  • French Carmelite nun and religious writer Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity[26]
  • American artist Ferdinand Louis Schlemmer died from Addison's disease.
  • Some have suggested Jane Austen was an avant la lettre case, but others have disputed this.[27]
  • According to Carl Abbott, a Canadian medical researcher, Charles Dickens may also have been affected.[28]
  • Australia's youngest rugby league football international, Geoff Starling[29]
  • Osama bin Laden may have had Addison's. Lawrence Wright noted that bin Laden exhibited the key symptoms of Addison's, including "low blood pressure, weight loss, muscle fatigue, stomach irritability, sharp back pains, dehydration, and an abnormal craving for salt". Bin Laden was also known to have consumed large amounts of sulbutiamine to treat his symptoms.[30]
  • Basque nationalist and founder of the Basque Nationalist Party, Sabino Arana died in Sukarrieta at the age of 38 after falling ill with Addison's disease during time spent in prison.
  • One of Canada's top gymnasts, Nathan Gafuik, was diagnosed with Addison's disease when he was 15.[31]

Other animals

The condition has been diagnosed in all breeds of dogs. In general, it is underdiagnosed, and one must clinically suspect it as an underlying disorder for many presenting complaints. Females are overrepresented, and the disease often appears in middle age (4–7 yr), although any age or either gender may be affected. Genetic continuity between dogs and humans helps to explain the occurrence of Addison's disease in both species.[32]

Hypoadrenocorticism is treated with fludrocortisone or a monthly injection called Percorten V (desoxycorticosterone pivlate (DOCP)) and prednisone. Routine blood work is necessary in the initial stages until a maintenance dose is established. Most of the medications used in the therapy of hypoadrenocorticism cause excessive thirst and urination, making it important to provide enough drinking water. If the owner knows about an upcoming stressful situation (shows, traveling, etc.), patients generally need an increased dose of prednisone to help deal with the added stress. Avoidance of stress is important for dogs with hypoadrenocorticism.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ten S, New M, Maclaren N (2001). "Clinical review 130: Addison's disease 2001".  
  2. ^ a b de Herder WW, van der Lely AJ (May 2003). "Addisonian crisis and relative adrenal failure". Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders 4 (2): 143–7.  
  3. ^ Nieman LK, Chanco Turner ML (2006). "Addison's disease".  
  4. ^ "Addison's Disease". National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service. Retrieved 26 October 2007. 
  5. ^ Winqvist O, Karlsson FA, Kämpe O (June 1992). "21-Hydroxylase, a major autoantigen in idiopathic Addison's disease".  
  6. ^ Husebye ES, Perheentupa J, Rautemaa R, Kämpe O (May 2009). "Clinical manifestations and management of patients with autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type I".  
  7. ^ Kennedy, Ron. "Addison's Disease". The Doctors' Medical Library. 
  8. ^ Laureti S, Casucci G, Santeusanio F, Angeletti G, Aubourg P, Brunetti P (1996). "X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy is a frequent cause of idiopathic Addison's disease in young adult male patient".  
  9. ^ Quinkler M, Dahlqvist P, Husebye ES, Kämpe O (Jan 2015). "A European Emergency Card for adrenal insufficiency can save lives". Eur J Intern Med 26 (1): 75–6.  
  10. ^ a b c Michels A, Michels N (1 Apr 2014). "Addison disease: early detection and treatment principles". Am Fam Physician 89 (7): 563–8.  
  11. ^ White, Katherine (28 July 2004). "What to do in an emergency -Addisonian crisis". Addison's Disease Self Help Group. 
  12. ^ "Adrenal Insufficiency and Addison's Disease". National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service. Retrieved 26 November 2010. 
  13. ^ "Addison Disease".  
  14. ^ a b Odeke, Sylvester. "Addison Disease".  
  15. ^ "Addison's disease: the facts you need to know".  
  16. ^ Volpé, Robert (1990). Autoimmune Diseases of the Endocrine System. CRC Press. p. 299.  
  17. ^ "Addison's disease".  
  18. ^  
  19. ^ Patnaik MM, Deshpande AK (May 2008). "Diagnosis–Addison’s Disease Secondary to Tuberculosis of the Adrenal Glands". Clinical Medicine & Research 6 (1): 29.  
  20. ^ Bishop PM (1950). "The history of the discovery of Addison's disease".  
  21. ^ Nicholas JA, Burstein CL, Umberger CJ, Wilson PD (November 1955). "Management of adrenocortical insufficiency during surgery".  
  22. ^ "Diseased, demented, depressed: serious illness in Heads of State".  
  23. ^  
  24. ^ "The Australian Addison's Disease Association". Retrieved 2007-07-25. 
  25. ^ Marsden, Brian (1997-07-18). "Eugene Shoemaker (1928-1997)". Comet Shoemaker-Levy Collision with Jupiter.  
  26. ^ Jones, Terry. "Patron Saints Index: Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity". Archived from the original on 11 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-04. 
  27. ^ Upfal, Annette (2005). "Jane Austen's lifelong health problems and final illness: New evidence points to a fatal Hodgkin's disease and excludes the widely accepted Addison's".  
  28. ^ Williams, Linda; Hawes, Donald; Brake, Laurel (1991). "The Nineteenth Century: Victorian Period". The Year's Work in English Studies ( 
  29. ^ Chersterton, Ray (11 May 2007). "The cruelty of sport".  
  30. ^  
  31. ^ "Addison’s disease makes Gafuik a fighter". The Globe and Mail. 20 July 2012. Retrieved 20 July 2012. 
  32. ^ "Dog Days Of Science". Archived from the original on 21 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-01. 

External links

  • National Adrenal Diseases Foundation (USA)
  • Addison's Disease Self Help Group (UK)
  • The National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service
  • Addison's disease on NHS choices
  • Addison's disease on Mayo Clinic
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