Addison's disease can be difficult to detect at first because early symptoms are similar to those of many other health conditions.

Initial symptoms of Addison's disease can include:

  • lack of energy or motivation (fatigue)
  • abnormal drowsiness or tiredness (lethargy)
  • muscle weakness
  • low mood (mild depression) or irritability
  • loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss
  • the need to urinate frequently
  • increased thirst
  • craving 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, which is used to regulate the balance of salt and water.

Later symptoms

Further symptoms of Addison's disease tend to develop gradually over months or years. However, additional stress, caused by another illness or an accident, for example, may cause your symptoms to suddenly get worse.

You may go on to develop:

Some women may also have irregular periods or miss some periods completely. Children with Addison's disease may go through puberty later than usual.

Some people with Addison's disease also develop low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia). This can cause symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, confusion, anxiety and even unconsciousness (particularly in children).

If you're experiencing symptoms of Addison's disease, see your GP so they can diagnose or rule out the condition. These symptoms will usually improve with appropriate treatment.

Read more about diagnosing Addison's disease and treating Addison's disease.

Adrenal crisis

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 and 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 or without any symptoms at all.

Signs of an adrenal crisis include:

  • severe dehydration
  • pale, cold, clammy skin
  • sweating
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • dizziness
  • severe vomiting and diarrhoea
  • severe muscle weakness
  • headache
  • severe drowsiness or loss of consciousness

An adrenal crisis is a medical emergency. If left untreated, it can be fatal. If you think you or someone you know with Addison's disease is having an adrenal crisis, dial 999 for an ambulance.

If an adrenal crisis is not treated, it can lead to a coma and death. There's also a risk your brain will not get enough oxygen if treatment is delayed, which can cause permanent disability.

Page last reviewed: Mon Jun 2021 Next review due: Fri Feb 2020

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