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Addison's disease

Matenga a Addison

Illustration showing a kidney with an adrenal gland at its top. Also, text listing the symptoms already listed on the page.Addison's disease is a very rare disease involving your adrenal glands. It's also called adrenal insufficiency.

You have two adrenal glands, which are just above your kidneys. They release two hormones: cortisol and aldosterone.

Cortisol has many roles in your body. It controls your blood pressure, immune system and blood glucose (sugar) levels.

Aldosterone controls the balance of salt and water in your body.

Addison's disease happens when your adrenal glands are damaged and no longer make enough of these important hormones. The commonest cause is your body's immune system mistakenly destroying the cells in your adrenal gland. We don't know why this happens.

Symptoms of Addison's disease

Symptoms of Addison's disease usually come on slowly. They include tiredness, poor appetite, weight loss, dizziness (especially when you stand up), nausea, diarrhoea or vomiting and darkening skin.

Sometimes your adrenal glands can fail suddenly and cause symptoms to appear rapidly, such as confusion, low blood pressure, loss of consciousness and pain in your abdomen, lower back or legs. This is known as an Addisonian crisis and can be life threatening.

Diagnosing Addison's disease

If your doctor thinks you might have Addison's disease, you'll need a blood test to measure your cortisol and aldosterone levels.

You might also need a scan such as a CT scan or MRI scan.

Treating Addison's disease

Your health professional will prescribe tablets to replace the cortisol and aldosterone. You'll need to take them every day for the rest of your life. Usually, you'll take hydrocortisone and fludrocortisone.

If you have Addison's disease, consider wearing a medical alert bracelet or pendant so medical staff know how to treat you in an emergency. Search online for medical bracelets NZ to find medical bracelet suppliers.

Managing Addison's disease when you're sick

If you become unwell with any illness, you should take extra hydrocortisone. This is because cortisol is the body’s "stress hormone" and you need higher levels to help your body recover from infections and other illnesses.

You don’t need to take extra fludrocortisone when you're unwell.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed June 2023.

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Review key: HIADD-70626