Autoimmune Addison disease affects the function of the adrenal glands, which are small hormone-producing glands located on top of each kidney. It is classified as an autoimmune disorder because it results from a malfunctioning immune system that attacks the adrenal glands. As a result, the production of several hormones is disrupted, which affects many body systems.
The signs and symptoms of autoimmune Addison disease can begin at any time, although they most commonly begin between ages 30 and 50. Common features of this condition include extreme tiredness (fatigue), nausea, decreased appetite, and weight loss. In addition, many affected individuals have low blood pressure (hypotension), which can lead to dizziness when standing up quickly; muscle cramps; and a craving for salty foods. A characteristic feature of autoimmune Addison disease is abnormally dark areas of skin (hyperpigmentation), especially in regions that experience a lot of friction, such as the armpits, elbows, knuckles, and palm creases. The lips and the inside lining of the mouth can also be unusually dark. Because of an imbalance of hormones involved in development of sexual characteristics, women with this condition may lose their underarm and pubic hair.
Other signs and symptoms of autoimmune Addison disease include low levels of sugar (hypoglycemia) and sodium (hyponatremia) and high levels of potassium (hyperkalemia) in the blood. Affected individuals may also have a shortage of red blood cells (anemia) and an increase in the number of white blood cells (lymphocytosis), particularly those known as eosinophils(eosinophilia).
Autoimmune Addison disease can lead to a life-threatening adrenal crisis, characterized by vomiting, abdominal pain, back or leg cramps, and severe hypotension leading to shock. The adrenal crisis is often triggered by a stressor, such as surgery, trauma, or infection.
Individuals with autoimmune Addison disease or their family members can have another autoimmune disorder, most commonly autoimmune thyroid disease or type 1 diabetes.
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