In congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency, treatment with glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid substitution is not always satisfactory. Suboptimal control is often observed in pubertal patients, despite adequate replacement doses and adherence to treatment. We investigated whether the pubertal process is associated with alterations in cortisol pharmacokinetics resulting in a loss of control of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. We determined the pharmacokinetics of hydrocortisone administered iv as a bolus. A dose of 15 mg/m(2) body surface area was given to 14 prepubertal (median age, 9.4 yr; range, 6.1--10.8 yr), 20 pubertal (median, 13.5 yr; range, 10.6--16.8 yr), and 6 postpubertal (median, 18.2 yr; range, 17.2--20.3 yr) patients with salt-wasting CAH. All patients were on standard replacement therapy with hydrocortisone and 9 alpha-fludrocortisone. Serum total cortisol concentrations were measured at 10-min intervals for 6 h following iv hydrocortisone bolus and analyzed using a solid-phase RIA. The serum total cortisol clearance curve was monoexponential. Mean clearance was significantly higher in the pubertal group (mean, 427.0 mL/min; SD, 133.4) compared with the prepubertal (mean, 248.7 mL/min; SD, 100.6) and postpubertal (mean, 292.4 mL/min; SD, 106.3) (one-way ANOVA, F = 9.8, P < 0.001) groups. This effect persisted after adjustment for body mass index. The mean volume of distribution was also significantly higher in the pubertal (mean, 49.5 L; SD, 12.2) than the prepubertal (mean, 27.1 L; SD, 8.4) patients but not in the postpubertal (mean, 40.8 L; SD, 16) (ANOVA, F = 15.2, P < 0.001) patients. The significance remained after correction for body mass index. There was no significant difference in mean half-life of total cortisol in prepubertal (mean, 80.2 min; SD, 19.4), pubertal (mean, 84.4 min; SD, 24.9), and postpubertal (mean, 96.7 min; SD, 9.9) patients. Similar differences between groups were observed when the pharmacokinetic parameters of free cortisol were examined. In addition, the half-life of free cortisol was significantly shorter in females compared with males (P = 0.04). These data suggest that puberty is associated with alterations in cortisol pharmacokinetics resulting in increased clearance and volume of distribution with no change in half-life. These alterations probably reflect changes in the endocrine milieu at puberty and may have implications for therapy of CAH and other conditions requiring cortisol substitution in the adolescent years.