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Addisonian Crisis (Causes, Symptoms & Treatment)

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Addisonian Crisis (Causes, Symptoms & Treatment)

An Addisonian crisis, also known as an adrenal crisis, is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the body doesn’t have enough cortisol. It often occurs because of an underlying adrenal insufficiency due to Addison’s disease.

This article will cover detailed information about an Addisonian crisis, including its symptoms, causes, emergency treatment, and prevention strategies, to properly identify this condition and develop effective diagnostic testing and treatment strategies. 


Understanding Addisonian Crisis

An Addisonian crisis is a serious condition resulting from an acute insufficiency of adrenal hormones (mineralocorticoid or glucocorticoid). It’s often a complication of adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease) with a high mortality rate. Since it’s a life-threatening situation, an Addisonian crisis requires immediate medical intervention.

Adrenal insufficiency has a high mortality rate due to low levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is a hormone responsible for numerous body functions, including:

  • Metabolism control
  • Stress response regulation
  • Blood sugar regulation
  • Blood pressure regulation 
  • Reducing inflammation 
  • Sleep-wake-cycle control

The adrenal glands make cortisol in the human body. They are small, triangle-shaped glands located above each of the kidneys. Hormones are chemicals that carry messages throughout the body, telling it what to do and when. An adrenal crisis is life-threatening because it can cause reduced blood flow, shock, organ damage, seizures, or a coma. Without treatment, about 20% of people who go into shock may die from an Addisonian crisis. Untreated Addison’s disease is a common cause.

Causes of the Addisonian Crisis

Numerous genetic and environmental factors might play roles in developing an Addisonian crisis. Examples include:

Underlying Adrenal Insufficiency

Addison’s disease, or chronic adrenal insufficiency, is a common contributor to an Addisonian crisis. Other risk factors include a history of disease or surgery that affects the adrenal or pituitary glands, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, hypothyroidism, type 1 diabetes, and other autoimmune endocrine conditions. A traumatic brain injury is also a risk factor.

Causes of Addison’s disease also include repeated infections, HIV/AIDS, fungal infections, cancer, adrenal gland bleeding, adrenal gland removal, and amyloidosis, a condition that causes amyloid protein build-up in vital organs.

Triggers of Crisis

Common triggers that may lead to an Addisonian crisis include:

Sometimes, the exact cause of an Addisonian crisis isn’t entirely clear.

Symptoms of an Addisonian Crisis

The symptoms of an Addisonian crisis include:

Patients with these symptoms should seek medical attention right away, as the rapid onset and progression of symptoms require immediate medical care.

Symptoms of Addison’s disease, which requires treatment to prevent an Addisonian crisis, include:

Patients should see their healthcare provider at the first sign of Addison’s disease or if they develop other new or unusual symptoms. 

Emergency Treatment for Addisonian Crisis

It’s vital to provide effective emergency treatment for patients in an Addisonian crisis, as doing so can save their lives.

Immediate Medical Response

Emergency treatment protocols for an Addisonian crisis include the administration of intravenous (IV) hydrocortisone, fluids, and electrolytes. A healthcare provider may also give patients antibiotics if a bacterial infection is the cause of their adrenal crisis. Patients with hypoglycemia may need to consume carbohydrates to raise their blood sugar.

During an Addisonian crisis, it’s vital for hospitalization and patient monitoring and stabilization. Providers may conduct an adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) blood test to pinpoint the cause of an Addisonian crisis. Other diagnostic tests to consider include blood sugar testing, cortisol tests, pH blood testing, potassium blood tests, and sodium blood testing.

Managing Addison's Disease to Prevent Crisis

Properly managing Addison’s disease can help prevent an adrenal crisis from occurring in the future. Examples of treatment options that reduce complications linked to Addison’s disease include:

Long-term Corticosteroid Therapy

Ongoing corticosteroid therapy can help patients effectively manage Addison's disease and reduce the risk of an Addisonian crisis. This includes adjusting their medications during times of stress or illness.

Common treatments include hormone replacement therapy to correct steroid hormone levels in the body. Patients might take oral corticosteroids like hydrocortisone, prednisone, or methylprednisolone to replace cortisone. They may take fludrocortisone acetate to replace aldosterone.

Medication doses may need to be adjusted because of stress, surgery, infection, minor illnesses, or vomiting. 

Education and Emergency Planning

Patients with Addison’s disease should carry a bracelet and medical alert card with them at all times, letting emergency providers know the type of care they require. It’s vital to avoid missing medication doses. Patients can carry an injectable form of corticosteroids with them to use in case of a medical emergency. 

Patient and caregiver education is important to recognize the early signs of an Addisonian crisis and have an emergency plan in place.

Recovery and Prognosis

Recovery and prognosis after an Addisonian crisis are as follows:

After an Addisonian Crisis

During recovery from an Addisonian crisis, patients can expect potential adjustments to their medication dosages. Strategies for long-term management include staying in contact with a healthcare provider for routine hormone monitoring. 

When an Addisonian crisis is identified and treated promptly with fluids and medications, prognosis and recovery are typically good. However, some patients need occupational or physical therapy and rehabilitation to regain optimal functioning. That’s why prompt treatment is crucial. 

Living with Addison's Disease

Living a healthy lifestyle with Addison's disease includes regular follow-ups with healthcare providers, maintaining a well-balanced diet, and staying hydrated. Patients diagnosed with Addison’s disease should also consume plenty of salt in their diet, particularly during periods of heavy exercise, hot weather, or bouts of diarrhea

Addison’s disease patients should see their provider at least once yearly and may need screenings for autoimmune diseases. They should also see their doctor during periods of major stress, including an injury, illness, or emotional or mental distress.


Key Takeaways

Recognizing and promptly responding to an Addisonian crisis is a critical part of effectively managing Addison’s disease and reducing the risk of life-threatening problems.

Patients should head to the nearest hospital if they develop signs of an Addisonian crisis and see an endocrinologist if they experience symptoms of Addison’s disease.

Patients diagnosed with Addison’s disease should seek routine medical care, strictly adhere to their treatment plans, and educate themselves and their support networks about the risks and prevention strategies for an Addisonian crisis and be prepared in case one arises. 

Education, proper diagnosis and treatment, and adopting healthy lifestyle habits are vital to maintaining exceptional health in patients with Addison’s disease.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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