Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a group of genetic conditions. These conditions affect the adrenal glands. These glands control how the body grows and develops. There are many types of CAH.
CAH is a genetic disorder. It is passed from the parents to the child.
The symptoms of CAH are caused by problems in the adrenal glands. In CAH, the glands may have trouble making one or both of the following hormones:
The adrenal gland will work harder to try to produce more of the missing hormones. This can lead to an overproduction of another hormone called androgen. This hormone is present in boys and girls, but is responsible for the development of male features. Other adrenal hormones may affect how the body handles salt and water.
A family history of CAH will increase your child's chance of having the condition. People can carry the gene for CAH and not have the disorder. In this case, both parents must have the CAH gene for the child to have a 25% chance of getting CAH.
Symptoms can vary with the different types of CAH and the sex of the child. General symptoms include:
Testing may be done during pregnancy, just after birth, or after symptoms develop.
Testing may be done during pregnancy if there is a family history of CAH, especially if a sibling has the disease. Small samples of tissue or amniotic fluid may be removed for testing. The samples are taken by one of the following:
In the United States, all newborn children are screened for CAH. The test involves a heelstick to draw some blood. The blood will be examined for hormone levels.
To diagnose CAH in older children or in those that were not screened as newborns, you will be asked about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor may take a small amount of blood and urine to test for hormone levels. This is often enough to make the diagnosis.
If the tests are not clear, genetic tests may be ordered. This is done with blood tests.
You and your child may be referred to a specialist. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan. With treatment, your child can have a normal life. Treatment options include:
If CAH is found before birth, medication may be used to lower the level of androgens. It may allow normal development of female genitalia. It does not stop CAH from developing.
The medication may be taken as a pill or liquid by the mother.
Missing aldosterone can cause a condition called salt wasting. This is a problem maintaining the correct amount of salt in the blood. It can lead to low blood pressure and a high potassium level in the blood. If you have salt wasting, you may need to add table salt to your diet.
Most children born with CAH need to take hormone replacement medications. These steroid medications will replace the missing hormones. The exact types of steroid will depend on your child's condition. The medication will also help slow the production of androgens. This will reduce the development of male features in girls.
Certain doses of these medications can have side effects like slowing growth or lowering bone mass. Hormone replacement can also lead obesity and to a condition called Cushings syndrome. Your child will be monitored. Medications will be adjusted as needed.
Cortisol is needed during stressful situations and illness. If you are taking medication to replace cortisol, you may need extra doses during stressful events. This can include surgeries or illnesses. Your doctor will make a medication plan with you.
Depending on the type of CAH, medication may need to be taken for the rest of your child's life.
Wear a medical alert bracelet that states adrenal insufficiency. This will let others know of your condition if you are unable to communicate.
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia Education and Support Network
Congenital Adrenal Research Education and Support Foundation
SickKids—The Hospital for Sick Children
Save Babies Through Screening Foundation of Canada
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Last reviewed May 2014 by Kim Carmichael, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.