What Is Adrenal Insufficiency?

Adrenal insufficiency is a relatively rare disorder caused either by destruction of tissue in the portion of the adrenal glands known as the cortex, which normally secretes the corticosteroid hormones (Addison’s disease), or by atrophy of the adrenal cortex resulting from a loss of stimulation from the pituitary gland (secondary adrenal failure). Addison’s disease produces symptoms only after some 90 percent of the adrenal cortices have been destroyed.

Insufficiency of corticosteroids can lead to a number of health problems, including an inability to recover from even a minor infection. Complications such as protracted weakness, shock, or death may result. Adrenal insufficiency may occur at any age and affects both sexes equally. Once invariably fatal, the disorder is now highly treatable since the advent of corticosteroid replacement therapy in the 1950s; thus, a patient’s outlook is quite favorable. Steps must be taken, however, to avert adrenal crisis—a sudden, life-threatening steroid deficiency usually brought on by infection, injury, or stress—which requires immediate emergency treatment.

What Causes Adrenal Insufficiency?

  • Addison’s disease results from the destruction of the adrenal cortices. In most cases, no underlying cause can be pinpointed, although it often appears to involve an autoimmune disorder (an attack upon healthy tissue by the body’s defenses against disease).
  • A family history of autoimmune disorders, such as hypothyroidism, is associated with a higher risk of Addison’s disease.
  • Anticoagulant therapy with medications such as warfarin or heparin can occasionally result in adrenal hemorrhage, leading to destruction of adrenal tissue.
  • In a few cases Addison’s disease may occur as a complication of certain infections, such as tuberculosis, histoplasmosis, or cytomegalovirus (in AIDS patients).
  • Adrenal tissue may be destroyed by metastatic cancer or other disorders (amyloidosis and sarcoidosis).
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency most often results from a pituitary tumor that destroys a part of the pituitary gland or from surgical removal or radiation of the pituitary.
  • Long-term treatment with steroids leads to atrophy of the adrenal cortex; recovery of adrenal function may take months after steroid treatment is stopped.

Symptoms of Adrenal Insufficiency

  • Progressive fatigue and muscle weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Increased pigmentation of skin and mucous membranes (dark freckles, uneven patches of darkened skin, or unusually persistent tanning following sun exposure). This does not occur with secondary adrenal insufficiency.
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Dizziness, especially when rising from a lying or sitting position
  • Personality changes, such as increased irritability or restlessness
  • Enhanced senses of smell, taste, or hearing

Adrenal Insufficiency Prevention

  • There is no way to prevent Addison’s disease.

Adrenal Insufficiency Diagnosis

  • Patient history and physical evaluation.
  • ACTH stimulation test for diagnosing adrenal insufficiency
  • Insulin-Induced Hypoglycemia test to determine how the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands respond to stress.
  • Blood and urine tests are taken to measure hormone levels.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen to determine if the adrenal glands are small in size, indicating destruction, or enlarged, indicating infiltration by an independent disease process.

How to Treat Adrenal Insufficiency

  • Lifelong hormone replacement is the key to treatment. Corticosteroids such as cortisol, prednisone, and dexamethasone are prescribed. Because the drugs promote increased secretion of stomach acid, doses should be taken with meals, milk, or antacids.
  • Oral doses of a mineralocorticoid are taken once a day to replace aldosterone.
  • A mineralocorticoid such as fludrocortisone is often needed to help control salt and mineral balance and thus prevent dehydration and hypotension (unusually low blood pressure) in those with Addison’s disease.
  • The dose of corticosteroids must be increased during stressful times, such as infections, gastrointestinal illness, dental extractions, or surgery.
  • Patients should wear or carry medical alert identification with them at all times.
  • Adrenal crisis requires emergency medical treatment, which includes intravenous fluid and hydrocortisone infusions.

When to Call a Doctor

  • See a doctor for any persistent unexplained weakness, weight loss, or stomach upset.
  • EMERGENCY If you have been diagnosed with Addison’s disease and experience symptoms of severe lethargy, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or dehydration, get immediate medical assistance. These may be indications of adrenal crisis.


Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies: The Complete Home Medical Reference

Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor

Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 30 Jan 2012

Last Modified: 30 Jan 2012