What causes primary adrenal insufficiency?

Updated: Oct 11, 2018
  • Author: Kevin M Klauer, DO, EJD, FACEP; Chief Editor: Romesh Khardori, MD, PhD, FACP  more...
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Primary adrenal insufficiency, which can be acute or chronic, may be caused by the anatomic destruction of the gland. This destruction can have various causes, including tuberculosis or fungal infection, other diseases infiltrating the adrenal glands, and hemorrhage. However, the most frequent cause is idiopathic atrophy, which is probably autoimmune in origin.

Primary adrenal insufficiency also may be caused by metabolic failure (eg, insufficient hormone production). This failure may be a result of congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), enzyme inhibitors (eg, metyrapone), or cytotoxic agents (eg, mitotane).

Primary adrenocortical insufficiency is rare and occurs at any age. The male-to-female ratio is 1:1.

A retrospective study by Rushworth et al indicated that in pediatric patients with CAH, adrenal crises occur mostly in younger children. The study, which evaluated 573 admissions for medical problems in youngsters with CAH, found that 21 of 37 adrenal crises occurred in patients aged 1-5 years, with another six in children aged up to 1 year. [4]

A Japanese study reported that in children under age 7 years with 21-hydroxylase deficiency, a cause of CAH, the incidence of adrenal crisis was 10.9 cases per 100 person-years. [5]

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