Last updated on:October 19th, 2023
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Adrenal crisis does not have a universally agreed-on definition or criteria; what is agreed is that it represents the acute onset or worsening of adrenal insufficiency.
Nausea and vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are commonly reported symptoms, although in some cases they may indicate an underlying gastroenteritis, rather than being due to the crisis itself.
Muscle cramps are typically an early herald of an impending crisis. These are thought to be due to electrolyte disturbances.
Rapid symptom progression
Adrenal crises tend to progress rapidly, as the onset triggers a vicious cycle of increasing stress. Studies have shown a delay of only 24 hours from first symptoms to a full-blown crisis.
Preceding constitutional symptoms
There may be a preceding history of fatigue, lethargy and weight loss. These are due to the chronic glucocorticoid deficiency secondary to underlying undiagnosed adrenal insufficiency.
Presence of trigger factors
Sepsis is the most common trigger of adrenal crisis; other triggers include trauma, surgery, pregnancy, heat, and psychological stress, and poor compliance with glucocorticoid therapy.
Note that in 6% to 12% of patients, a trigger cannot be identified.
Known or underlying adrenal insufficiency
Around half of patients have a known history of adrenal insufficiency. This may be primary insufficiency due to adrenal injury via autoimmune disease, tuberculosis, infection, or surgery; or secondary insufficiency due to pituitary failure, e.g. after Sheehan's syndrome.
Previous glucocorticoid therapy
Prolonged glucocorticoid therapy (i.e. doses equivalent to ≥5mg prednisolone over ≥4 weeks) leads to suppression of endogenous steroid production.
This may occur in patients with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic autoimmune conditions.
Medications that can precipitate an adrenal crisis include adrenostatic drugs such as etomidate, and ketoconazole; and agents that increase cortisol metabolism, e.g., barbiturates, rifampin, and mitotane.