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The Differences Between Cushing's Disease and Addison's Disease

Cushing's Disease and Addison's Disease

You probably don’t give your adrenal glands much thought and may not even realize when they’re not functioning properly, but your body shows the signs. That’s why it pays to brush up on your anatomy and learn everything you can about two types of adrenal disease: Addison’s and Cushing’s diseases, sometimes called syndromes. 

To help you sort through the differences, our expert team at the Endocrine Center in Houston, Texas, explains these conditions here. 

Understanding the role of your adrenal glands

Your adrenal glands are small, triangular-shaped organs just above your kidneys, and despite their size, they play a crucial role in your health. They mainly produce and secrete cortisol, aldosterone, epinephrine, and norepinephrine — hormones that regulate your blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and stress response. 

The mighty little adrenal glands also trigger your "fight or flight" response, which kicks into gear when you’re stressed or in danger. The bottom line is that when your body is in a homeostatic state and responds appropriately to changes in internal and external environments, you can thank your adrenal glands.

When things go wrong with your adrenal glands

Like all organs, adrenal glands can suffer illness and injury. Adrenal glands are susceptible to tumors, infections, and genetic mutations and may even develop problems when you take certain medications. Two of the most familiar adrenal conditions are Cushing's disease and Addison's disease.

Cushing’s disease

When your adrenal glands pump out too much cortisol, you end up with hypercortisolism, also known as Cushing's disease. Various factors can cause Cushing’s, including adrenal or pituitary gland tumors or long-term use of corticosteroid medications. 

Symptoms of Cushing's disease can include:

We run a blood test to check your hormones to reach a diagnosis.

Addison’s disease

The opposite problem, Addison's disease, stems from insufficient cortisol (and sometimes aldosterone) production. Addison’s disease usually develops due to adrenal gland damage or a problem with your pituitary gland's adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) production. 

Symptoms of Addison's disease may include:

Notice that some of these symptoms are direct opposites of Cushing’s disease symptoms, some are similar, and some are unique. 

The differences between Addison’s and Cushing’s diseases

One key difference between these two diseases is the amount of cortisol — with Cushing's there’s too much; with Addison's, there’s too little. Additionally, while both diseases can cause fatigue, weight changes, and other similar symptoms, the specific patterns of these symptoms determine which syndrome is present.

Understanding the differences between these two diseases is important because treatment options vary depending on the condition and its underlying cause. 

For example, we typically treat Cushing's disease with medication, radiation, or surgery to remove a tumor. We usually recommend hormone replacement therapy for Addison's disease to address the insufficient production of cortisol and aldosterone.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms of Cushing’s disease or Addison’s disease, schedule an appointment at any of our three Houston locations — you can call us or use our online scheduler. The Endocrine Center team is here to help you understand your symptoms, your disease, and your treatment options.

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