Adrenal crisis: prevention and management in adult patients

Ther Adv Endocrinol Metab. 2019 Jun 13:10:2042018819848218. doi: 10.1177/2042018819848218. eCollection 2019.


Adrenal crisis is an acute life-threatening emergency contributing to the excess mortality that is reported in patients with adrenal insufficiency. The incidence of adrenal crisis is estimated to be 8 per 100 patient years in patients with adrenal insufficiency. Patients with adrenal crisis present systemically unwell with nonspecific signs and symptoms often leading to misdiagnosis and delayed treatment. An adrenal crisis may be the first presentation of adrenal insufficiency or can occur in patients who have been established on glucocorticoid replacement therapy. Infections are the major precipitating factor, but other causes include physical stress such as a surgical procedure or trauma, forgetting or discontinuing glucocorticoid therapy, pronounced physical activity, and psychological stress. The emergency treatment involves prompt recognition and administration of parenteral hydrocortisone, rehydration and management of electrolyte abnormalities. Prevention is centred around patient education. All patients should be educated on stress dosing and parenteral glucocorticoid administration. They should carry a steroid dependency alert card and wear a medical alert bracelet or similar identification. Despite many improvements in the management of patients with adrenal insufficiency, adrenal crisis continues to occur and represents a major source of morbidity, mortality and distress for patients. Improved patient and clinician education and measures to facilitate parenteral hydrocortisone self-administration in impending crisis are central to the management of this life-threatening event.

Keywords: Addison’s disease; adrenal crisis; adrenal insufficiency; cortisol; hydrocortisone.

Publication types

  • Review