Addison’s disease

Written by Dr Claudia Pastides, 27th June 2019

In the UK the main cause is autoimmune, meaning the body’s own immune system damages the adrenal glands. Worldwide, the most common cause is tuberculosis.

Causes

In the UK the main cause is autoimmune, meaning the body’s own immune system damages the adrenal glands. Worldwide, the most common cause is tuberculosis.

Risk factors

  • Polyglandular autoimmune syndrome type 1 and 2 (genetically inherited autoimmune condition)
  • Hypothyroidism (having an underactive thyroid gland)
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus
  • Tuberculosis

Typical Symptoms

The hormones produced by the adrenal glands play a role in maintaining blood pressure, regulating your metabolism and response to stress.

As a result the symptoms caused by Addison’s disease are very varied and it can unfortunately sometimes take a long time to make a diagnosis of Addison’s.

Typical symptoms that evolve over time include:

  • Increased skin pigmentation (darkening of the skin) as spots or patches on the palms of the hands, in the mouth and on sun exposed areas of the skin
  • Feeling very tired
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal aches
  • Carvings for salt, soy sauce or liquorice1
  • Muscle weakness and cramps
  • Feeling dizzy when standing up (due to low blood pressure)

Sometimes Addison’s will be diagnosed due to the sudden onset of an ‘Addisonian crisis’, which is set off by an infection or a period of stress. An Addisonian crisis includes:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Shock
  • Sudden abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Slight fever

Common Treatment

If untreated, Addison’s is very serious and life-threatening. Addison’s requires lifelong treatment. Treatment is initially managed by an endocrinologist. Thereafter the endocrinologist will usually share care and prescribing of medication with your GP.

It is important to be aware that medication doses need to be adjusted during periods of illness or physical stress (e.g. injury, surgery, heavy exercise etc) and the endocrinologist and GP will be able to advise you of this.


When to speak to a doctor

If you think that you might have Addison’s disease, it is important to speak to a GP. Your concerns or questions about Addison’s can often be initially managed via a digital consultation. If the GP decides you need blood tests or a face to face appointment, they will discuss what steps you can take next. To speak to one of our Babylon GPs, download the app and create an account today.


Prevention

More information

Addison’s disease self-help group - https://www.addisons.org.uk/

Please note that this material is for general information only and should never be used as a substitute for personalised medical advice provided during a consultation with a doctor.