Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
DefinitionCongenital 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.
CausesCAH 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:
- Cortisol—helps the body respond to stress and infections
- Aldosterone—helps the body maintain normal levels of sodium and potassium
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Risk FactorsA 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.
SymptomsSymptoms can vary with the different types of CAH and the sex of the child. General symptoms include:
- Altered or unexpected features in newborn girls such as:
- Unusual appearance of genitalia
- Parts of the external genitalia may resemble a penis
- Early signs of puberty in boys as young as two or three years old such as:
- Becoming very muscular
- Experiencing penis growth
- Developing pubic hair
- Having a deepening voice
- Excessive facial and/or body hair
- Fast growth compared to peers of the same age—most children will stop growing sooner than their peers and are often relatively short as adults
- Difficulty fighting respiratory infections and illnesses
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Severe acne
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Bluish skin color
DiagnosisTesting 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:
TreatmentYou 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:
Prenatal TreatmentIf 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.
Dietary ChangesMissing 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.
MedicationsMost 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.
SurgerySurgery can correct unusually formed genitalia. It is often done when the child is between 1-3 years of age.
PreventionCAH is an inherited disorder. There are no preventive measures.If someone in your immediate family has CAH, talk to your doctor about genetic testing. This is important if you are expecting or planning to have a child.
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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Congenital adrenal hyperplasia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated June 26, 2012. Accessed June 4, 2014.
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Patient Education—Facts about CAH. Clinical Center National Institutes of Health website. Available at: http://www.cc.nih.gov/ccc/patient%5Feducation/pepubs/cah.pdf. Published November 2009. Accessed June 4, 2014.
4/15/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Muthusamy K, Elamin MB, Smushkin G, et al. Clinical review: Adult height in patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia: a systematic review and metaanalysis. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2010;95(9):4161-4172.
- Reviewer: Kim Carmichael, MD
- Review Date: 05/2014
- Update Date: 06/04/2014
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