Addison’s disease (also called primary adrenal insufficiency or hypoadrenalism) is a rare disorder of the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands are basically two small glands that sit on top of the kidneys. They produce two essential hormones: cortisol and aldosterone.
In Addison’s disease, the adrenal gland is damaged completely, and not enough cortisol and aldosterone are generated
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About 8,400 people in the UK have Addison’s disease. It can affect people of any age, although it’s most frequent between the ages of 30 and 50. It’s also more common in women than men.
Early-stage signs of Addison’s disease are similar to other more common health conditions, like depression or flu. You may notice:
- fatigue (lack of energy or motivation)
- muscle weakness
- low mood
- loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss
- increased thirst
Over time, these issues may become more severe and you may experience further signs, such as dizziness, fainting, cramps and exhaustion. You may also notice small areas of darkened skin, or darkened lips or gums.
Although these signs aren’t always caused by Addison’s disease, you should see your doctor, so they can be investigated.
Why it happens
The condition is often as a result of a problem with the immune system, which makes it to attack the outer layer of the adrenal gland (the adrenal cortex), disrupting the production of steroid hormones aldosterone and cortisol. It’s not known why this happens, but it’s responsible for 70-90% of cases in the UK.
Other potential causes may include conditions that can damage the adrenal glands, such as tuberculosis (TB), although this is not common in the UK.
How to Addison’s disease
Addison’s disease is often treated with medication to replace the missing hormones. You’ll be required to take the medication for the rest of your life.
With treatment, symptoms and signs of Addison’s disease can largely be controlled. Most people with the condition stay a normal lifespan and are able to live an active life, with few limitations.
However, many people with Addison’s disease also discover they must learn to manage bouts of fatigue and there may be linked with health conditions, such as diabetes or an underactive thyroid.
People with Addison’s disease must be constantly be in the know of the risk of a sudden worsening of symptoms, called an adrenal crisis. This can occur when the levels of cortisol in your body fall significantly.
An adrenal crisis is a medical emergency. If left untreated, it can get fatal.