Addison's disease is a disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of their hormones. Your adrenal glands are just above your kidneys. The outside layer of these glands makes hormones that help your body respond to stress and regulate your blood pressure and water and salt balance.
Usually, a problem with your immune system causes Addison disease. The immune system mistakenly attacks your own tissues, damaging your adrenal glands causing them to not produce enough of the adrenal hormones called cortisol and aldosterone. Without enough cortisol or aldosterone, people become weak and dehydrated, unable to maintain an adequate blood pressure and are unable to respond properly to stress.
Addison disease affects about 1 to 3 people per 100,000 in the U.S. It is found in people of all ages and affects both males and females equally. Symptoms of insufficiency may not emerge until about 80% to 90% of the adrenal cortex has been destroyed.
In the U.S., about 70% of primary adrenal insufficiency in adults is due to an autoimmune problem. Since the signs and symptoms of adrenal insufficiency are gradual and non-specific, people may ignore them until they suddenly worsen into a severe condition called an adrenal crisis. About 25% of the time, hormone insufficiency is diagnosed during an adrenal crisis. This crisis may be caused by a period of increased stress, trauma, surgery, or a severe infection. In an adrenal crisis, the signs and symptoms may include abdominal pain, difficulty in breathing, kidney failure, loss of consciousness, low blood pressure, severe pain in the lower back, abdomen or legs or severe vomiting and diarrhea. If left untreated, it can be fatal.
Treatment with replacement corticosteroids controls the symptoms of this disease. However, people with the disease will usually need to take these drugs for life. Many people with Addison's disease are taught to give themselves an emergency injection of hydrocortisone during stressful situations. It is important for them to always carry a medical identification card that states the type of medication and the proper dose they require in case of an emergency.