Underactive Adrenal Glands / Addison's Disease
What is Addison's disease?Addison's disease is the result of an underactive adrenal gland. An underactive adrenal gland produces insufficient amounts of cortisol (a steroid hormone that helps to control the body's use of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, suppresses inflammatory reactions in the body, and affects immune system functions) and aldolsterone (a steroid hormone that controls sodium and potassium in the blood). One in every 100,000 people have Addison's disease. Onset of the disease may occur at any age.
What causes Addison's disease?Most of the time, the cause of the disease is unknown (idiopathic). About one-third of Addison's disease cases are caused by the actual destruction of the adrenal glands through cancer, infection, an autoimmune process, or other diseases. Other causes may include the following:
- Use of corticosteroids as a treatment (such as prednisone) may cause a slow down in production of natural corticosteroids by the adrenal glands.
- Certain medications used to treat fungal infections may block production of corticosteroids in the adrenal glands.
- Rarely, Addison's disease is inherited as an X-linked trait, where the gene responsible for the condition is located on the X chromosome and passed down from a healthy female carrier to her sons (50/50 chance), who are affected. In this form, symptoms typically begin in childhood or adolescence.
What results from inadequate corticosteroid production?Lack of adrenal hormones may cause:
- elevated levels of potassium.
- extreme sensitivity to the hormone insulin, which normally is present in the bloodstream. This sensitivity may lead to low blood sugar levels.
- increased risk during stressful periods, such as surgery, infection, or injury. Corticosteroids play an important role in helping the body fight infection and promote health during physical stress.
What are the symptoms of Addison's disease?Mild Addison's disease symptoms may only be apparent when the child is under physical stress. The following are the most common symptoms of Addison's disease. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- rapid pulse
- dark skin (first noted on hands and face)
- black freckles
- bluish-black discoloration around the nipples, mouth, rectum, scrotum, or vagina
- weight loss
- loss of appetite
- intense salt craving
- muscle aches
- intolerance to cold
How is Addison's disease diagnosed?In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for Addison's disease may include blood tests to measure corticosteroid hormone levels.
Treatment of Addison's disease:Specific treatment for Addison's disease will be determined by your child's physician based on:
- your child's age, overall health, and medical history
- extent of the disease
- your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- expectations for the course of the disease
- your opinion or preference
The information on this Web page is provided for educational purposes. You understand and agree that this information is not intended to be, and should not be used as, a substitute for medical treatment by a health care professional. You agree that Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital is not making a diagnosis of your condition or a recommendation about the course of treatment for your particular circumstances through the use of this Web page. You agree to be solely responsible for your use of this Web page and the information contained on this page. Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital, its officers, directors, employees, agents, and information providers shall not be liable for any damages you may suffer or cause through your use of this page even if advised of the possibility of such damages.