Medically reviewed on December 10, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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The adrenal glands (two small glands located above your kidneys) are responsible for producing critical hormones like cortisol and aldosterone—but in rare cases, the adrenal glands can function abnormally. Abnormal adrenal function can contribute to conditions like Addison’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome.
While both conditions are related to adrenal function, there are distinct differences in their causes, symptoms, and treatments.
In this guide, we’re breaking down Addison disease vs. Cushing syndrome in detail to help you better understand both conditions. We’ll explore the similarities and differences and explain how to find an ideal treatment route if you’re living with one of these adrenal gland disorders.
First, let’s explore Addison’s disease—a condition that can occur when your adrenal glands don’t make enough hormones.
Addison’s disease is one of three kinds of adrenal insufficiency: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
Primary adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease) can occur when the adrenal glands are damaged and can’t make enough cortisol and (in some cases) aldosterone. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone,” but it also plays a key role in :
Aldosterone, on the other hand, is a hormone that helps your body regulate potassium and sodium levels in your blood. Both of these minerals support normal nerve and muscle function, and potassium is key to maintaining a normal heartbeat.
But why do the adrenal glands underproduce cortisol and aldosterone in people with Addison’s disease? Autoimmune disorders are one of the most common causes of Addison’s disease—when your body’s immune system attacks its own cells, it can damage your adrenal glands and impact their function. But there are other, less common culprits of Addison’s disease, too:
People living with Addison’s disease often experience chronic (i.e., long-lasting or near-constant) symptoms like :
Less common symptoms include :
People living with Addison’s disease may experience mild or moderate symptoms, but severe symptoms can occur during an adrenal crisis. When our bodies undergo intense physical stress (perhaps due to an injury or illness, or after a medical procedure), we need more cortisol than usual to keep functioning normally. However, for people with Addison’s disease, insufficient cortisol production can be especially impactful in these stressful scenarios.
If you’ve received an Addison’s disease diagnosis, it’s very important to recognize the symptoms of a potential adrenal crisis, like:
An adrenal crisis is a healthcare emergency—one that can be fatal if left untreated. In cases of adrenal crisis, healthcare providers administer corticosteroid injections, which can be lifesaving for people living with Addison’s disease or other types of adrenal insufficiency. Adrenal crises can be precipitated by a number of things, including simple illness.
In addition to emergency medical treatments like corticosteroid injections, there are currently two general treatments for people living with Addison’s disease :
Healthcare providers also recommend that people living with Addison’s disease carry emergency corticosteroid injections (for unexpected cases of adrenal crisis) and wear a medical alert tag with information about their condition.
With regular treatments and high-quality care from healthcare providers, most people living with Addison’s disease live normal, active lives.
Now, let’s explore Cushing’s syndrome—a condition that can occur when the adrenal glands make too many hormones.
Cushing’s syndrome can occur in people whose adrenal glands make an excessive amount of cortisol over a long period of time. There are two kinds of Cushing’s syndrome:
You may have heard Cushing’s syndrome referred to as “Cushing’s disease.” Cushing’s disease is a specific type of Cushing’s syndrome—people living with Cushing’s disease have tumors in their pituitary glands that produce too much adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH signals the adrenal glands to make cortisol. So, Cushing’s disease is a type of endogenous Cushing’s syndrome.
There are a few hallmark symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome:
There are also a few symptoms that can affect certain groups of people living with Cushing’s syndrome :
It’s important to note that not all people with Cushing’s syndrome experience all, some, or any of the symptoms above. This makes the condition difficult to diagnose.
For people living with exogenous Cushing’s syndrome, healthcare providers will typically either :
The healthcare provider might also recommend a specific Cushing syndrome diet to help manage the condition.
For people with endogenous Cushing’s syndrome, treatment might include :
Addison’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome are alike in a few ways:
While these conditions share some commonalities, Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease are two distinct medical issues that require close attention from a healthcare professional.
Keep in mind, Addison’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome have some distinct differences:
If you suspect that you’re experiencing abnormal adrenal function (either excessive hormone production or low hormone levels), working with a medical expert is key. A healthcare provider can help you confirm your diagnosis and find a treatment plan that works best for your wellness goals and lifestyle.
While it’s difficult to say which Addison’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome treatments may be right for you, qualified healthcare experts have the knowledge and experience to support your adrenal journey.
Addison disease vs. Cushing syndrome: while both are adrenal, they can have vastly different impacts on your long-term health and wellness.
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Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP is a board-certified Family Physician. Since completing her residency training in 2010, she’s been practicing full-scope family medicine in a rural setting. Dr. Foglesong Stabile’s practice includes caring for patients of all ages for preventative care as well as chronic disease management. She also provides prenatal care and delivers babies. Dr. Foglesong Stabile completed a teaching fellowship in 2020 and teaches the family medicine clerkship for one of her local medical schools. Dr. Foglesong Stabile’s favorite thing about family medicine is the variety of patients she sees in her clinical practice.