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You are here : 3-RX.com > Medical Encyclopedia > Diseases and Conditions > Addison's Disease
      Category : Health Centers > Endocrine Disorders

Addison's Disease

Alternate Names : Primary Adrenocortical Insufficiency, Primary Adrenal Failure, Hypocortisolism

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors | Symptoms & Signs | Diagnosis & Tests | Prevention & Expectations | Treatment & Monitoring

Addison disease occurs when the adrenal glands are no longer able to produce certain hormones needed for life, such as cortisol and aldosterone.

What is going on in the body?

There are two adrenal glands in the body, one on top of each kidney. They produce two hormones: cortisol and aldosterone.


Cortisol is a type of hormone called a glucocorticoid. It affects almost every organ and tissue in the body. Experts believe cortisol may have hundreds of effects, but its main job is to help the body respond to stress. Other vital tasks include the following.

  • It helps maintain blood pressure, heart function, and blood vessel function.
  • It helps slow the immune system's inflammation response.
  • It helps balance the effects of insulin in breaking down glucose for energy.
  • It helps control the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
  • Cortisol is vital to health, so the body maintains a precise balance. As with many other hormones, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are key to this control.


    Aldosterone is a type of hormone called a mineralcorticoid. It helps with the following functions:

  • maintains blood pressure
  • maintains water and salt balance in the body by helping the kidneys hang on to sodium and get rid of potassium
  • What are the causes and risks of the disease?

    Addison disease is a rare disorder that affects only about 1 in every 100,000 people. It occurs in all age groups, and affects both men and women equally. Addison disease may be caused by either a disorder of the adrenal glands themselves, which is called primary adrenal insufficiency. Or, it may be caused by inadequate secretion of ACTH by the pituitary gland. In primary adrenal insufficiency, an autoimmune disorder that makes the person's own immune system attack and destroy the outer layer of the adrenal glands, called the cortex, is often at fault. When at least 90 percent of the cortex has been destroyed, adrenal insufficiency occurs. Experts believe causes for this type may include:

  • an inherited syndrome called polyendocrine deficiency syndrome, type 1 or type 2
  • tuberculosis, called TB
  • chronic infections, mainly fungal infections
  • cancer that has spread from somewhere else in the body
  • amyloidosis
  • surgical removal of the adrenal glands
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency is due to a lack of ACTH, which causes the adrenal glands to produce less cortisol. It does not affect production of aldosterone. Causes of this type of insufficiency include:

  • surgical removal of the benign, known as noncancerous, tumors of the pituitary gland linked with Cushing disease. These tumors produce excess ACTH, and when they are removed, the body is unable to adapt quickly
  • hypopituitarism, due to tumors, infections, loss of blood flow to the pituitary, radiation for pituitary tumors, or surgical removal of parts of the hypothalamus or the pituitary gland


    Next section


    Addison's Disease: Symptoms & Signs

    Author: Adam Brochert, MD
    Reviewer: Kathleen A. MacNaughton, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed: 09/19/02

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