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HealthInfo Canterbury

Addison's disease

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 your blood sugar (glucose) 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 come on slowly. They include tiredness, nausea, poor appetite, weight loss, dizziness (especially when you stand up) and darkening skin.

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

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 life. Usually, you'll take hydrocortisone tablets twice a day, along with fludrocortisone to replace the aldosterone. If you become unwell, you'll need to take extra hydrocortisone for a few days (usually double dose). If you can't take tablets, you may need a hydrocortisone injection.

Sometimes stress such as an infection, surgery or an accident can make your symptoms suddenly get worse. This is because your body can't produce the extra cortisol it needs. This is called an adrenal crisis. If you have an adrenal crisis, you'll need urgent treatment with hydrocortisone injection and fluids.

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.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2020.

Page reference: 70626

Review key: HIADD-70626