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Addison's Disease in Children

Addison's Disease in Children

What is Addison's disease?

Addison's disease is when the adrenal glands don't make enough of two steroid hormones. The hormones are cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol controls the body's metabolism, blocks inflammatory reactions, and affects the immune system. Aldosterone manages sodium and potassium levels. The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys. There is one gland on top of each kidney. Addison's disease is fairly rare and may first appear at any age.

What causes Addison's disease?

The most common cause of Addison's disease is damage to the adrenal glands caused by an autoimmune disease. Other cases of Addison's disease are caused by the damage to the glands by any of these:

  • Cancer
  • Infection
  • An autoimmune problem
  • A rare genetic disease

In rare cases, Addison's disease is passed down in a family.

Other causes of low corticosteroids can include:

  • Use of corticosteroid medicine. This includes prednisone. The medicines lower the amount of natural corticosteroids made by the adrenal glands.
  • Use of some medicines to treat fungal infection. These medicines may stop corticosteroids being made in the adrenal glands.

Who is at risk for Addison's disease?

A child is at risk for Addison's disease if he or she has any of these:

  • An autoimmune disease
  • Cancer
  • Infection such as tuberculosis
  • Family history of the disease
  • History of using corticosteroid medicine
  • History of using anti-fungal medicine

What are the symptoms of Addison's disease?

Mild symptoms may only occur when a child is under physical stress. Symptoms may include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Fast pulse
  • Dark skin, first seen on hands and face
  • Black freckles
  • Bluish-black color around the nipples, mouth, rectum, scrotum, or vagina
  • Weight loss
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite
  • Intense salt craving
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Intolerance to cold

The symptoms of Addison's disease can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is Addison's disease diagnosed?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she may also ask about your family’s health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. Your child may have blood tests. These are done to check corticosteroid and potassium levels.

How is Addison's disease treated?

The goal of treatment is to replace the hormones and to relieve the symptoms. Addison's disease can be life-threatening. Because of this, treatment often starts right away with corticosteroid medicine. This medicine may be taken by mouth. Or it may be given by IV. It depends on how sick your child is. In most cases, corticosteroid medicine must be taken for life. Treatment may also include a medicine that helps manage the body's levels of sodium and potassium.  

What are possible complications of Addison's disease?

If left untreated, Addison's disease may lead to:

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Extreme weakness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Kidney failure
  • Shock from dehydration

Severe complications are most likely to occur when the child is under physical stress.

Lack of adrenal hormones may also cause:

  • High blood levels of potassium, which affect the water and sodium levels in the body
  • Extreme sensitivity to the hormone insulin, which may lead to low blood sugar levels

Living with Addison's disease

Addison's disease is a life-long condition. It needs lifetime treatment. Stressful events such as surgery, infection, or injury can cause severe symptoms of Addison’s. This is because corticosteroids help the body fight infection and keep healthy during physical stress. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider if your child needs surgery. Get medical care for your child right away if he or she:

  • Has vomiting or diarrhea
  • Has any other infection or illness

Your child should wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace. Work with your child's healthcare provider to help manage your child’s condition.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your child's healthcare provider if your child has any symptoms of Addison's disease.

If your child has Addison's disease, talk with your child’s healthcare provider if your child needs surgery. Get medical care for your child right away if he or she:

  • Has vomiting or diarrhea
  • Has any other infection or illness

Key points about Addison's disease

  • Addison's disease is when the adrenal glands don't make enough cortisol and aldosterone.
  • The most common cause of Addison's disease is damage to the adrenal glands caused by an autoimmune disease. Medicines can also cause the adrenal glands to not make enough cortisol.
  • Mild symptoms of Addison's disease may only appear when a child is under physical stress. Symptoms may include muscle weakness, fatigue, and dizziness.
  • Addison's disease can be life-threatening. Because of this, treatment often starts right away with corticosteroid medicine. In most cases, corticosteroid medicine must be taken for life. Treatment may also include a medicine that helps manage the body's levels of sodium and potassium.
  • If left untreated, Addison's disease may lead to severe weakness, kidney failure, and shock.
  • Stressful events such as surgery, infection, or injury can cause severe symptoms of Addison’s. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider if your child needs surgery. Get medical care for your child right away if he or she has vomiting or diarrhea or other illness.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s health care provider:
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.