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Dermatologic Aspects of Addison Disease

  • Author: Elizabeth A Liotta, MD; Chief Editor: William D James, MD  more...
Updated: Oct 08, 2015


In 1855, Thomas Addison first described adrenal insufficiency, which was subsequently named after him. The basis of Addison disease has dramatically changed since its initial description. Originally, the disease usually resulted from an infection of the adrenal gland; the most common infection was tuberculosis, which is still the predominant cause of Addison disease in developing countries. Currently, in developed countries, Addison disease most commonly results from nonspecific autoimmune destruction of the adrenal gland.



Adrenal insufficiency can manifest as a defect anywhere in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Primary adrenal insufficiency is a result of destruction of the adrenal cortex. The zona glomerulosa, the outer layer of the adrenal gland, produces aldosterone. Cortisol is produced in both the zona fasciculata and the zona reticularis, the middle and innermost layers of the adrenal gland, respectively. Dehydroepiandrosterone is produced in the zona reticularis.

Clinical findings are noted after 90% of the adrenal cortex has been destroyed. Precipitating events are multifactorial and include autoimmune, infectious (eg, mycobacterial, fungal), neoplastic (eg, primary, metastatic), traumatic, iatrogenic (eg, surgery, medication), vascular (eg, hemorrhage, emboli, thrombus), and metabolic (eg, amyloidosis) events. With the destruction of the adrenal cortex, feedback inhibition of the hypothalamus and anterior pituitary gland is interrupted, and corticotropin is secreted continuously. Corticotropin and melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) are both components of the same progenitor hormone. When corticotropin is cleaved from the prohormone, MSH is concurrently released. The increased MSH level results in a characteristic bronze hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation is generally noted in primary adrenal insufficiency associated with increased levels of corticotropin and MSH.



US frequency

The reported incidence of Addison disease is 5 or 6 cases per million population per year, with a prevalence of 60-110 cases per million population.


The male-to-female ratio is 1:1.5-3.5.


Addison disease can occur in persons of any age; however, it is most common in people aged 30-50 years. The expression of adrenal cortex antibodies (ACAs) in patients without symptoms of Addison disease represents a significant risk of progression to adrenal insufficiency. The risk varies with age; children have a high risk of progression compared with adults, in whom the expression of ACAs represents a 30% risk of progression to Addison disease.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Elizabeth A Liotta, MD Chief Dermatologist and Sole Proprietor, Integrated Skin Care Centers

Elizabeth A Liotta, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Alexander Brough, MD Consulting Surgeon, Department of Dermatology, Sewell's Point Clinic

Alexander Brough, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Dirk M Elston, MD Professor and Chairman, Department of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery, Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine

Dirk M Elston, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Michael J Wells, MD, FAAD Associate Professor, Department of Dermatology, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Paul L Foster School of Medicine

Michael J Wells, MD, FAAD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American Medical Association, Texas Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Jeffrey P Callen, MD Professor of Medicine (Dermatology), Chief, Division of Dermatology, University of Louisville School of Medicine

Jeffrey P Callen, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Physicians, American College of Rheumatology

Disclosure: Received income in an amount equal to or greater than $250 from: XOMA; Biogen/IDEC; Novartis; Janssen Biotech, Abbvie, CSL pharma<br/>Received honoraria from UpToDate for author/editor; Received honoraria from JAMA Dermatology for associate editor and intermittent author; Received royalty from Elsevier for book author/editor; Received dividends from trust accounts, but I do not control these accounts, and have directed our managers to divest pharmaceutical stocks as is fiscally prudent from Stock holdings in various trust accounts include some pharmaceutical companies and device makers for i inherited these trust accounts; for: Celgene; Pfizer; 3M; Johnson and Johnson; Merck; Abbott Laboratories; AbbVie; Procter and Gamble; Amgen.

Chief Editor

William D James, MD Paul R Gross Professor of Dermatology, Vice-Chairman, Residency Program Director, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

William D James, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Society for Investigative Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Robin Travers, MD Assistant Professor of Medicine (Dermatology), Dartmouth University School of Medicine; Staff Dermatologist, New England Baptist Hospital; Private Practice, SkinCare Physicians

Robin Travers, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Medical Informatics Association, Massachusetts Medical Society, Women's Dermatologic Society, Medical Dermatology Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


The authors and editors of Medscape Reference gratefully acknowledge the contributions of previous author, Dr. Quenby Erickson, to the development and writing of this article.

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Hyperpigmented scar on diffusely hyperpigmented (tanned) skin. Courtesy of Dirk M. Elston, MD.
Hyperpigmented scars from ear piercing. Courtesy of Dirk M. Elston, MD.
Pigmented patches of mucous membrane and pigmented longitudinal nail bands. Courtesy of Dirk M. Elston, MD.
Hyperpigmented gingival patches. Courtesy of Dirk M. Elston, MD.
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