Addison's Disease Symptoms & Causes

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In-Depth

Addison's disease is the result of the adrenal gland(s) producing too little: 

  • cortisol, a steroid hormone that helps regulate the body's use of nutrients, maintain blood glucose levels, support blood pressure, suppressinflammatory reactions in the body, and affect immune system functions
  • aldosterone, a steroid hormone that controls sodium and potassium in the blood

Addison’s disease affects the body’s ability to respond to physical stress. While it’s considered to be a rare disease, at least 8,000 Americans have the condition, and the onset of the disease may occur at any age. 

How does inadequate corticosteroid production affect my child?
Corticosteroids play an important role in helping the body fight infection and promote health during physical stress.

The lack of adrenal hormones may cause: 

  • elevated levels of potassium
  • extreme sensitivity to the hormone insulin, which is normally present in the bloodstream. This sensitivity may lead to low blood sugar levels.
  • increased risk during stressful periods, such as surgery, infection or injury 

Did you know?

The Endocrinology Program at Boston Children's Hospital has been ranked among top pediatric hospitals by U.S. News & World Report.

Causes

What causes Addison’s disease?
Addison’s disease is most often caused by the destruction of the adrenal gland due to an autoimmune response. Some cases are caused by the destruction of the adrenal glands through cancer, infection or other disease.

Other causes may include: 

  • use of corticosteroids (such as prednisone) to treat another condition, such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease or certain types of cancer. These therapies may cause a slowdown in the production of natural corticosteroids by the adrenal glands. Following the withdrawal of such mediations under medical supervision, the adrenal gland can usually regain normal function with time.
     
  • use of certain medications to treat fungal infections, which may block production of corticosteroids in the adrenal glands 

In rare cases, Addison's disease is inherited as an X-linked trait, meaning that the gene responsible for the condition is located on the X chromosome and passed down from a mother to her child. In this form, symptoms typically begin in childhood or adolescence.

Signs and symptoms

What are the symptoms of Addison’s disease?
Symptoms of mild Addison's disease may only be apparent when your child is under physical stress. While each child may experience symptoms differently, some of the most common symptoms include: 

  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • rapid pulse
  • darkening of the skin (first noted on hands and face)
  • black freckles
  • bluish-black discoloration around the nipples, mouth, rectum, scrotum or vagina
  • weight loss
  • dehydration
  • loss of appetite
  • intense salt craving
  • muscle aches
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • intolerance to cold 

If left untreated, Addison's disease may lead to:

  • severe abdominal pain
  • extreme weakness
  • low blood pressure'
  • kidney failure
  • shock

The risk of developing these problems is especially high when a child is experiencing physical stress.

Questions to ask your doctor

You and your family are key players in your child’s medical care. It’s important that you share your observations and ideas with your child’s health care provider and that you understand your provider’s recommendations.

If your child is exhibiting signs of Addison’s disease and you’ve set up an appointment, you probably already have some ideas and questions on your mind. But at the appointment, it can be easy to forget the questions you wanted to ask. It’s often helpful to jot them down ahead of time so that you can leave the appointment feeling like you have the information you need. 

If your child is old enough, you may want to suggest that she write down what she wants to ask her health care provider, too. 

Some of the questions you may want to ask include: 

  •  How will Addison’s disease affect my child long-term?
  • How often will my child need to see his doctor?
  • Is my child getting the optimal treatment? How do we know what the optimal treatment is?
  • Are there any special instructions for giving my child his medications?
  • What other resources are there for me and my child? Where else can I get information?

FAQ

Q: What is Addison’s disease?
A: Addison's disease is the result of the adrenal gland(s) producing too little of certain hormones that regulate key processes in your child’s body. It also affects the body’s ability to respond to physical stress. Addison’s disease is considered to be a rare condition, and the onset can occur at any age.

Q: What causes Addison’s disease?
A: Addison’s disease is most often caused by the destruction of the adrenal gland due to an autoimmune response. Some cases are caused by the destruction of the adrenal glands through cancer, infection or other disease. 

Q: How will my child’s doctor diagnose Addison’s disease?
A: Symptoms for Addison’s disease often come on slowly and may only be apparent when your child is under physical stress. Targeted blood tests will help your child’s doctor definitively diagnose whether or not your child has Addison’s disease. 

Q: How is Addison’s disease treated?
A: The goal of treatment is to restore your child’s adrenal function by replacing essential hormones. These hormones may be taken orally or intravenously, depending on your child's condition. In most cases, your child must continue taking them for the rest of her life.

 Q: How serious is Addison’s disease if left untreated?
A: If left untreated, Addison's disease may lead to severe abdominal pain, extreme weakness, low blood pressure, kidney failure and shock, especially when a child is experiencing physical stress.

A guide to the endocrine system

Learn all the basics about your child's endocrine system and the importance of regulating hormones.
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