Conduct protocol in emergency: Acute adrenal insufficiency

Rev Assoc Med Bras (1992). 2016 Nov;62(8):728-734. doi: 10.1590/1806-9282.62.08.728.


Introduction:: Acute adrenal insufficiency or addisonian crisis is a rare comorbidity in emergency; however, if not properly diagnosed and treated, it may progress unfavorably.

Objective:: To alert all health professionals about the diagnosis and correct treatment of this complication.

Method:: We performed an extensive search of the medical literature using specific search tools, retrieving 20 articles on the topic.

Results:: Addisonian crisis is a difficult diagnosis due to the unspecificity of its signs and symptoms. Nevertheless, it can be suspected in patients who enter the emergency room with complaints of abdominal pain, hypotension unresponsive to volume or vasopressor agents, clouding, and torpor. This situation may be associated with symptoms suggestive of chronic adrenal insufficiency such as hyperpigmentation, salt craving, and association with autoimmune diseases such as vitiligo and Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Hemodynamically stable patients may undergo more accurate diagnostic methods to confirm or rule out addisonian crisis. Delay to perform diagnostic tests should be avoided, in any circumstances, and unstable patients should be immediately medicated with intravenous glucocorticoid, even before confirmatory tests.

Conclusion:: Acute adrenal insufficiency is a severe disease that is difficult to diagnose. It should be part of the differential diagnosis in cases of hypotensive patient who is unresponsive to vasoactive agents. Therefore, whenever this complication is considered, health professionals should aim specifically at this pathology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Addison Disease / diagnosis
  • Addison Disease / therapy
  • Adrenal Insufficiency / diagnosis*
  • Adrenal Insufficiency / physiopathology
  • Adrenal Insufficiency / therapy*
  • Clinical Protocols
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Emergency Medical Services / standards*
  • Humans
  • Hypotension / diagnosis
  • Hypotension / therapy