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Addison's in a nutshell

Nick Willson

  • This section provides a brief introduction to Addison's disease and some resources to download about the condition. It covers a brief history of Addison’s, advent of synthesized cortisol, leading a ‘normal’ life with Addison’s, highlights the deadly risks of adrenal crisis and provides clarity on the rarity of Addison's disease.

A brief history of Addison’s: 1850’s: the deadly loss of adrenal hormones is discovered
When Dr Thomas Addison first identified adrenal failure among his poor, tuberculosis-ridden patients in inner London in 1849, there were no medicines to keep such patients alive. Death inevitably followed within a short time. This is because two of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands – cortisol and aldosterone – are essential for life.


The condition of adrenal failure is named after the good Dr Addison. In Victorian London, Addison’s was largely caused by a reaction to tuberculosis. Today, in modern day Britain, it is mostly ‘autoimmune’ – of unknown origin.


It is fashionable to describe cortisol as the ‘stress hormone’ and there are many popular journalistic articles to inform you that too much cortisol is bad for you. Only rarely will you find it explained that too little cortisol is just as damaging, leading to extreme muscle weakness, difficulty standing up, nausea, vomiting and, eventually, to a loss of consciousness and an early death. Typically, this severe but non-specific illness is accompanied by a deepening skin colour, so that a very sick individual can look deceptively healthy – fashionably thin and tanned.


The 20th century development of life-giving medication
It was not until the 1930s that scientists in the United States synthesized a chemical form of the vital adrenal hormone – cortisol – that could keep patients with Addison’s disease alive. President John F Kennedy was one of the first to receive the new miracle drug, cortisone. Only in the early 1950s did cortisone became available in commercial quantities in the UK.


Some of the first ‘generation’ of post-war Addison’s patients are still with us today. In the 1950s, cortisone was so expensive it required the personal authorisation of the Minister of Health to receive it. Today, modern manufacturing technology means that this essential, life-giving adrenal medication is comparatively inexpensive. A life-saving vial of 100mg injectable hydrocortisone for emergency treatment costs a little over £1.


It is possible to lead a ‘normal’ life with Addison’s
With the right balance of daily medication, people with Addison’s disease can lead full and active lives. Within the past few years, members of the ADSHG have completed marathons, long distance cycling events and sailing voyages, been trekking in the Himalayas and the Andes, gone sky-diving and bungee-jumping, and ascended to the summit of Mont Blanc.


The deadly risks of adrenal crisis
Living with Addison’s is not all plain sailing. Daily steroid medication usually needs to be taken two or three times each day, at the right time of day. A delay of two hours in taking the next dose will see many people with Addison’s become weak or dizzy, possibly nauseous and forgetful. In the event of serious illness or injury, extra medication is needed rapidly, and an emergency injection of 100mg hydrocortisone may be required.


Without this extra medication, the patient may experience adrenal crisis. This is a life-threatening condition with a rapid drop in blood pressure, potentially leading to cardiac arrest or stroke.


Addison’s: how rare is it?
Recent research puts the rate of diagnosed, treated Addison’s among European populations at 140 per million, or around 9,000 cases in the UK. This makes it roughly two hundred times more rare than diabetes, another endocrine condition which sometimes develops along with Addison’s.


Text taken from the leaflet About the Addison's Disease Self-Help Group.


What is Addison's? - educational booklet
This eight page booklet gives a little history of Addison’s, from its discovery by Dr Thomas Addison in 1855, through the scientific and medical advances that occurred in the twentieth century, concluding with an overview of what life is like today for people with Addison’s. It includes a section of definitions explaining some of the medical terms used in endocrinology. Read more about this publication and download it...


What is Addison’s? - infographic
This infographic poster is a companion product to the education booklet, 'What is Addison’s?', which was written as a basic introduction and and provides some basic information on the condition.. Read more about this publication and download it...




ADSHG Facebook page
The ADSHG is reaching out through social media to people with newly diagnosed Addison’s to help them find the important medical guidelines that are freely available on the ADSHG website. All the news and comment about Addison’s and the ADSHG straight to your Facebook newsfeed. Read more here about he Facebook page...




ADSHG Twitter
The ADSHG twitter feed provides nuggets of news and information about the Group's activities and those of our supporters and fundraisers. Follow us at @AddisonsUK

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The Addison’s Disease Self-Help Group is the support group for people with Addison’s disease or adrenal insufficiency and their families in the UK and Ireland.The group was formed in 1984 and is a UK registered charity no. 1179825.

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