Addison's disease can be difficult to detect at first. This is because early symptoms are similar to symptoms of many other health conditions.
Initial symptoms of Addison's disease can include:
- fatigue (lack of energy or motivation)
- lethargy (abnormal drowsiness or tiredness)
- muscle weakness
- low mood (mild depression) or irritability
- loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss
- the need to urinate frequently
- increased thirst
- craving for salty foods
Dehydration can also be an early sign of Addison’s disease. It's caused by lack of the hormone aldosterone in your body. This hormone is used to regulate the balance of salt and water.
Later symptoms of Addison's disease
More symptoms of Addison’s disease tend to develop over months or years. Extra stress may cause your symptoms to suddenly get worse. For example, stress caused by another illness or an accident.
You may go on to develop:
- low blood pressure when you stand up, which can cause dizziness and fainting
- feeling sick (nausea)
- abdominal, joint or back pain
- muscle cramps
- chronic exhaustion, which may cause depression
- a reduced libido (lack of interest in sex), particularly in women
You may also experience a brownish discolouration of the skin, lips and gums. This is known as hyperpigmentation. It often occurs in the creases of your palms, on scars or on pressure points, such as your knuckles or knees.
Some women may have irregular periods or miss some periods completely. Children with Addison's disease may experience puberty later than usual.
Some people with Addison's disease also develop low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia).
This can cause symptoms such as:
- difficulty concentrating
- unconsciousness (particularly in children)
If you're experiencing symptoms of Addison's disease, see your GP. They can diagnose or rule out the condition. These symptoms will usually improve with appropriate treatment.
If Addison’s disease is left untreated, the levels of hormones produced by the adrenal gland gradually decrease in the body. This causes your symptoms to get progressively worse. It eventually leads to a life-threatening situation called an adrenal or Addisonian crisis.
During an adrenal crisis, the symptoms of Addison’s disease appear quickly and severely. This could happen when you're already experiencing initial symptoms. It could happen without any symptoms at all.
Signs of an adrenal crisis include:
- severe dehydration
- pale, cold, clammy skin
- rapid, shallow breathing
- severe vomiting and diarrhoea
- severe muscle weakness
- severe drowsiness or loss of consciousness
An adrenal crisis is a medical emergency
If left untreated, it can lead to a coma and death. There's also a risk your brain won't get enough oxygen if treatment is delayed. This can cause permanent disability.
Emergency action required: Dial 999 or 112 for an ambulance if:
- you think you or someone you know with Addison’s disease is having an adrenal crisis
Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE