Around 9,000 Americans have a condition called Addison’s disease. In this illness, the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, fail to produce enough cortisol, an anti-inflammatory hormone which is an important part of the body’s stress response. Cortisol is also used in the conversion of food into energy. Although Addison’s disease can be life-threatening, with proper care it’s not difficult to lead a normal life.
Addison’s disease manifests as either a primary or a secondary adrenal insufficiency, either a defect in adrenal gland functioning or in other parts of the body that affect the adrenal glands. In 70 percent of cases, Addison’s disease is an autoimmune response, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the adrenal glands. Sometimes, conditions such as tuberculosis, HIV infection, and some types of cancer damage the adrenal glands.
Symptoms of Addison’s usually come up gradually. It starts with fatigue and weakness. Patients also have poor appetite and weight loss. Less common symptoms include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, low blood sugar, and salt cravings. People who have other autoimmune conditions are particularly likely to have Addison’s disease. In addition, if you have unexplained darkening of your skin, talk to a doctor.
The disease is typically diagnosed with blood tests or imaging tests. There is no cure for Addison’s disease, but it can be treated with medications. Corticosteroids are sometimes prescribed, though they can also exacerbate the condition. It is generally recommended that patients get plenty of salt.
With proper treatment patients can generally live normal lives. Sometimes, however, a person will experience a flare-up called an addisonian crisis, with low blood pressure, low blood sugar and high potassium. This must be treated immediately with hydrocortisone and sugar.