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Health Encyclopedia

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Congenital adrenal hyperplasia

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia refers to a group of inherited disorders of the adrenal gland.

  • Alternative Names

    Adrenogenital syndrome; 21-hydroxylase deficiency

  • Causes, incidence, and risk factors

    Congenital adrenal hyperplasia can affect both boys and girls. People with congenital adrenal hyperplasia lack an enzyme needed by the adrenal gland to make the hormones cortisol and aldosterone.

    Without these hormones, the body produces more androgen, a type of male sex hormone. This causes male characteristics to appear early (or inappropriately).

    About 1 in 10,000 to 18,000 children are born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

  • Symptoms

    Girls will usually have normal female reproductive organs (ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tubes). They may also have the following changes:

    Boys won't have any obvious problems at birth. However, they may appear to enter puberty as early as 2 - 3 years of age. Changes may include:

    • Deep voice
    • Early appearance of pubic and armpit hair
    • Early development of male characteristics
    • Enlarged penis
    • Small testes
    • Well-developed muscles

    Both boys and girls will be tall as children but much shorter than normal as adults.

    Some forms of congenital adrenal hyperplasia are more severe and cause adrenal crisis in the newborn due to a loss of salt. Newborns with these forms develop severe symptoms shortly after birth, including:

  • Signs and tests

    Genetic tests can help diagnose, confirm, and manage the disease.

    This disease may also affect the results of the following tests:

  • Treatment

    The goal of treatment is to return hormone levels to normal. This is done by taking a form of cortisol (dexamethasone, fludrocortisone, or hydrocortisone) every day. People may need additional doses of medicine during times of stress, such as severe illness or surgery.

    The health care provider will determine the gender of a baby with ambiguous genitalia by checking the chromosomes (karyotyping). Girls with male-looking genitals will usually have surgery between ages 1 month - 3 months to correct the abnormal appearance.

    Parents of children with congenital adrenal hyperplasia should be aware of the side effects of steroid therapy. Report signs of infection and stress to your health care provider because the child may need more medication. Steroid medications cannot be stopped suddenly, because it may lead to adrenal insufficiency.

  • Support Groups
  • Expectations (prognosis)

    People with this condition usually have good health. However, they may be shorter than normal, even with treatment.

    Males have normal fertility. Females may have a smaller opening of the vagina and lower fertility.

    People with this disorder must take medication their entire lives.

    Untreated, adrenal crisis can lead to death within 1 - 6 weeks after birth.

  • Complications
    • Abnormal female external genitals (internal organs are normal)
    • Adrenal crisis, including hyponatremia and shock (especially in newborns)
    • Early development of male sexual characteristics
    • High blood pressure
    • Low blood sugar
    • Short height as an adult, despite early, rapid childhood growth
    • Side effects of steroid medications used as treatment
    • Tumors of the testes in adult men
  • Calling your health care provider

    Call for an appointment with your health care provider if your child develops symptoms of this disorder.

    If you had a child with this disorder or you have a family history of this disease and you plan to have other children, talk to your health care provider before conceiving. Genetic counseling is important if you have a family history of congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

  • Prevention

    Parents with a family history of congenital adrenal hyperplasia (of any type) or a child who has the condition should consider genetic counseling.

    Prenatal diagnosis is available for some forms of congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Diagnosis is made in the first trimester by chorionic villus sampling. Diagnosis in the second trimester is made by measuring hormones such as 17-hydroxyprogesterone in the amniotic fluid.

    A newborn screening test is available for the most common form of congenital adrenal hyperplasia. It can be done on heelstick blood (as part of the routine screenings done on newborns). This test is currently performed in many states. Ask your doctor if it is done in your state.

  • References

    White PC. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia and related disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 577.

Review Date: 1/21/2010

Reviewed By: Chad Haldeman-Englert, MD, Division of Human Genetics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2014 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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