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Addison disease

Synonym(s) Autoimmune Addison's disease
Autoimmune adrenalitis
Classic Addison's disease
Primary Addison's disease
Prevalence 1-5 / 10 000
Inheritance -
Age of onset All ages
  • E27.1
  • C0001403
  • C0271737
  • D000224
  • 10001130


Disease definition

Addison disease (AD) is a chronic and rare endocrine disorder due to autoimmune destruction of the adrenal cortex and resulting in a glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid deficiency. Properly speaking AD designates autoimmune adrenalitis, but it is a term commonly used to describe any form of chronic primary adrenal insufficiency (CPAI; see this term).


The prevalence of AD is 1/9,000-1/6,900 in the developed countries.

Clinical description

Disease onset peaks around 40 but it can occur at any age. It presents insidiously with nonspecific symptoms that can be mistaken for other more prevalent conditions. Common manifestations include fatigue, loss of energy, malaise, weight loss, nausea, anorexia (failure to thrive in children), muscle and joint pain. Pigmentation of skin and mucous membranes (darkening of the skin especially in the palmar creases, knuckles, scars, oral mucosa and sites of friction) is a cardinal sign of AD. Symptoms of postural hypotension and hypoglycemia are late manifestations. Patients may also crave salt. Vitiligo and alopecia areata are often present. AD also causes dehydroepiandrosterone deficiency causing additional symptoms seen only in women (loss of axillary/pubic hair, absence of pubarch in children, reduced libido and dry skin). Acute primary adrenal insufficiency (AAI; see this term), also called an adrenal crisis, can occur if treatment is not followed or during precipitating illnesses and is a life threatening medical emergency.


AD results from autoimmune destruction of the adrenal cortex and can be isolated or seen as part of an autoimmune disorder (autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type 1, 2 or 4, see these terms).

Diagnostic methods

Biochemical tests are needed to diagnose AD. Early morning serum cortisol and plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) levels are measured. Plasma ACTH is much higher in individuals with AD (>22 pmol/L) and morning serum cortisol levels are usually low (<83nmol/L) but can fluctuate. A stimulation test observing the cortisol response to exogenous ACTH is a useful tool in confirming a diagnosis. In healthy subjects serum cortisol concentrations increase (>500 nmol/L) after exogenous ACTH administration but no increase is seen in AD patients. Raised plasma ACTH levels confirm AD diagnosis.

Differential diagnosis

Secondary adrenal insufficiency needs to be eliminated. Causes include pituitary tumors, lymphatic hypophystitis, pituitary tuberculosis and sarcoidosis, all of which are differential diagnoses. Infiltrative disorders and other causes of CPAI should be excluded and include tuberculosis (see this term), fungal infections and AIDS-associated opportunistic infections. Genetic disorders, tumors, and treatment with certain drugs are other less common causes of CPAI.

Management and treatment

Management is life-long and requires a multidisciplinary team. Glucocorticoid replacement with oral hydrocortisone (10-25 mg daily taken in 2-3 doses) is given to mimic physiological cortisol secretion patterns. Oral fludrocortisone is given to replace mineralocorticoid hormones. Dehydroepiandrosterone replacement is optional. Glucocorticoid levels can be adjusted during times of stress to prevent AAI. The dose of hydrocortisone is maintained on the basis of clinical assessment and responses, taking into account a patient's well-being and presence of signs of over-replacement or under-replacement. An assessment of plasma renin activity is helpful in optimizing the dose of fludrocortisone. Growth and development in children must be monitored. Patients should carry a ready to inject hydrocortisone preparation and carry a medical alert card, in case of adrenal crisis.


There is no cure for AD but with proper treatment and care taken to prevent AAI there is no decrease in life expectancy. AD is only life threatening when ignored.

Expert reviewer(s)

  • Dr Anne BACHELOT

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