What is Addison’s Disease?
Addison’s disease (AD) is a condition where the skin becomes darker than normal due to excess production of melanin, which are pigments found in the skin. Melanin makes up about 1% of your body weight in red blood cells and produces black or dark brown pigment when it comes into contact with oxygen. The more melanin you have on your skin, the darker it will become.
Melanin is produced by all animals, but humans produce more of it than any other animal. Humans can get this extra melanin from their diet or through sun exposure. People with AD have less melanin production than those without the condition. The condition occurs most often in fair-skinned individuals, especially women and people over age 40. It affects both men and women equally.
There are no known causes for AD; however, genetics may play a role in its development.
Symptoms of Addison’s Disease
The first symptom of AD is darkening of the skin. The skin may appear very rough, scaly, or even burnish-like. The skin may also turn yellowish. If left untreated, the condition progresses to include loss of elasticity and thickening of the hair follicles (hirsutism). Hirsutism means excessive growth of hairs on the face and elsewhere on your body.
The next symptom of AD is muscle weakness, including loss of muscle mass and reduced muscle strength. You may experience rapid weight loss as well, which can affect your ability to exercise. Mood changes such as fatigue, confusion, and depression are also common in people with this condition. Other physical symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure (hypotension), and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Occasionally, people with severe AD may experience episodes of life-threatening drops in blood pressure.
Because the condition affects your adrenal glands, which produce a variety of hormones, people with Addison’s disease may experience various hormonal and metabolic changes over time. For instance, you may have low levels of circulating sodium ions (hyponatremia) or low levels of potassium ions (hypokalemia). Such hormonal changes can lead to vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.
In rare cases, the condition can also cause a skin cancer called melanoma, which is more common in people with Addison’s disease.
Treatments for Addison’s disease
There is no known cure for AD; however, you can take certain medications to slow down its progress. For instance, your physician may prescribe a glucocorticoid replacement to mimic the effects of cortisol or a mineralocorticoid replacement to mimic the effects of aldosterone. Other drugs may help you with the other symptoms of the condition. For instance, diuretics and beta blockers can help you keep your blood pressure within a normal range.
For people who are severely anemic (low in red blood cells), doctors may recommend an intravenous hemoglobin-based blood transfusion. However, this is typically only recommended for individuals who are severely weakened by their anemia or who have other medical conditions that may worsen due to the anemia.
Managing Addison’s disease
Because the exact cause of Addison’s disease is unknown, there is no way to prevent it. There is also no known connection between the disease and anything you did or didn’t do. While the condition typically affects middle-aged women more than men, anyone can get it at any age.
Often, people with Addison’s disease are able to manage their condition with medication. Your physician can help you determine the best treatment for you based on your age, your medical history, the extent of your symptoms, and other factors. If you have Addison’s disease, it is always a good idea to inform all of your doctors about your condition. This is because the long-term effects of untreated Addison’s disease include heart disease and osteoporosis.
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