What is the difference between adrenal crisis and Addison disease?

Updated: Feb 14, 2018
  • Author: Lisa Kirkland, MD, FACP, FCCM, MSHA; Chief Editor: George T Griffing, MD  more...
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Answer

Do not confuse acute adrenal crisis with Addison disease. In 1855, Thomas Addison described a syndrome of long-term adrenal insufficiency that develops over months to years, with weakness, fatigue, anorexia, weight loss, and hyperpigmentation as the primary symptoms. In contrast, an acute adrenal crisis can manifest with vomiting, abdominal pain, and hypovolemic shock. [1, 2] When not promptly recognized, adrenal hemorrhage can be a cause of adrenal crisis. See the images below.

Computed tomographic (CT) scans of the abdomen sho Computed tomographic (CT) scans of the abdomen show normal adrenal glands several months before the onset of hemorrhage (upper panel) and enlarged adrenals 2 weeks after an acute episode of bilateral adrenal hemorrhage (lower panel). The attenuation of the adrenal glands, indicated by arrows, is increased after the acute event. Reproduced from Rao RH, Vagnucci AH, Amico JA: Bilateral massive adrenal hemorrhage: early recognition and treatment. Ann Intern Med. Feb 1 1989;110(3):227-35 with permission from the journal.

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