Addison’s Disease

By: Joe Swails

What is Addison’s disease?
Addison’s disease is caused by damage to the adrenal glands. These glands sit above the kidneys (i.e. either side of the body). They control the production of certain hormones in the body – hormones that help regulate your blood sugar level, immune system (in the realm of fighting off infections), and also your blood pressure level.

About blood pressure: Blood pressure is the pressure of the blood that flows through your body’s arteries (blood vessels). Your arteries need to be free of the fatty deposits or the build-up of waste that causes them to narrow for the blood to flow naturally and in sufficient amounts, so that your heart and overall circulatory system functions properly and well.

When your blood pressure level rises, the amount of pressure exerted on the walls of your arteries as your blood flows through them is increased to an inordinate sustained level. This can lead to serious health problems.

About blood sugar: We get glucose sugar (or blood sugar) from food. It gives us energy and helps our cells to function properly. Too much glucose can damage your blood cells over time, make you feel ill, and lead to extremely serious medical conditions.

With Addison’s disease, when your adrenal glands become damaged (see Causes section below) through the outer shell (or cortex) being weakened, the glands can no longer produce enough hormones: cortisol, aldosterone, adrenal androgens – all which combine to help regulate things such as your energy levels, blood pressure, salt and water levels in your body, as well as sexual libido and overall physical stamina.

Symptoms of Addison’s disease include:

Low energy & feeling weak (this can have a sudden onset and become debilitating)

Tiredness (sometimes to the level of overwhelming fatigue)

Change in skin pigmentation to a darker colour in certain areas of the body (e.g., the elbows, nipples and armpits)

Lowered blood pressure




Intermittent abdominal pains, muscle cramps and pains

Joint pains

Intermittent diarrhoea or constipation

Loss of appetite


Hypoglycaemia (see below)

Irregular menstrual periods in women

Craving for salt

Note: Hypoglycaemia is where your blood sugar (glucose) is at an abnormal level. This can trigger a range of symptoms. Generally speaking, a hypoglycaemic attack can leave your body without enough energy to carry out even light everyday tasks and activities.

Although hypoglycaemia can be a worrying condition, the good news it that a hypoglycaemic attack (where your blood sugar drops and reaches a sometimes dangerous level) usually occurs with some forewarning. That said, if hypoglycaemia is left untreated it can lead to serious health problems.

Hypoglycaemia most commonly occurs in people who suffer from Type 1 - Diabetes.

Also, people with hypoglycaemia and Addison’s disease can often suffer from depressive illness. Please see contact details for the Depression Alliance in the Advice & Support section at the foot of this article.

Addison’s disease is caused by antibodies from your immune system attacking your adrenal glands.

In rare cases, Addison’s disease can also be caused by tuberculosis and cancer.

Some people may have a genetic predisposition to developing adrenal gland problems. This means that there is a family history of autoimmune conditions which has been passed down.

If you are suffering from the aforementioned symptoms and think that you may have Addison’s disease, arrange an appointment with your GP. After taking your medical history, asking you some questions about your symptoms, and carrying out a short examination, your GP will make a decision as to whether you need to be referred to a specialist (an endocrinologist) where a confirmed diagnosis can be made through the following tests:

Blood test – to measure the levels of cortisol in your body

An MRI or CT scan of your adrenal glands

Effect on your life
Addison’s disease is a rare condition. In fact, only 1 in 20,000 people in the UK develop the condition each year. That said, you can get Addison’s disease at any age and the symptoms of the disease can have an alarmingly sudden onset. This is particularly worrying and upsetting for parents of children with the disease (Addison’s disease is extremely rare, but can occur in children. Most sufferers of Addison’s disease are in their 50s).

Note: Although, as we have seen, the symptoms of Addison’s disease can come on quickly and sometimes without any prior warning, it is possible for you to have the disease but to be oblivious to the fact. Worldwide, many people with Addison’s disease are unaware that they have the disease for many years. This is because the symptoms do not always become apparent when the condition first develops.

The good news is that, through maintaining the prescribed treatment suggested by your GP or endocrinologist, it is possible to lead a full life despite having Addison’s disease. The key is to get the right balance of medicine for you (i.e. in accordance with the level of severity of your condition).

As yet, and despite worldwide medical research, there is no actual cure for Addison’s disease. However, it is possible to be prescribed steroid replacement therapy. This is intended to replace the hormones in your body which have become depleted or otherwise adversely affected due to the damage to your adrenal glands.

The level of medicine dosage of steroid replacement therapy will depend upon the severity of your condition.

For most people, steroid replacement therapy for Addison’s disease is a lifelong treatment.

How Chemist Online can help
Through this website we have a range of treatments available to buy which can help ease the symptoms and related symptoms of Addison’s disease (such as diarrhoea, constipation and muscle aches and pains).

We also have a range of products available to buy which can help you to monitor your blood glucose levels.

Advice & Support
Addison’s Disease Self-Help Group

High Blood Pressure Foundation
Tel. 0131 332 9211

Hypoglycaemia Support Foundation

Depression Alliance
Tel. 0845 123 23 20

This information and advice is not intended to replace the advice of your GP or chemist. Chemist Online is also not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made by a user based upon the content of the Chemist Online website. Chemist Online is also not liable for the contents of any external internet sites listed, nor does it endorse any commercial product or service mentioned or advised on any of the sites.

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