Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a group of genetic conditions that affect the adrenal glands. The glands may have trouble making these hormones:
The adrenal gland may also make too much of a hormone called androgen. Both boys and girls have this hormone. It helps male features develop.
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 raise your child's chance of having it.
Symptoms depend on the type of CAH and your child’s gender. Your child may have:
Testing may be done during pregnancy, just after birth, or after symptoms happen.
Testing may be done during pregnancy if there is a family history of CAH, such as if the baby’s brother or sister has the disease. Tissue or amniotic fluid may be taken for testing. This can be done with:
In the US, all newborn children are screened for CAH. The test involves getting a small sample of blood from the baby’s heel. The blood will be checked for hormone levels.
To diagnose older children or those who weren’t screened, you will be asked about your child’s symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor may take a small amount of blood and urine to test hormone levels.
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 their doctor about the best plan for your child. With treatment, your child can have a normal life. Your child may need:
If CAH is found before birth, medicine may be used to lower the level of androgens. It is given to the mother during pregnancy. It may allow female genitalia to grow the right way. It does not stop CAH.
Missing aldosterone can cause salt wasting. This is a problem keeping the right amount of salt in the blood. It can lead to low blood pressure and a high potassium level. If your child has salt wasting, table salt may need to be added to foods.
Most children need to take hormone replacement medicines. The type of medicine will depend on your child's condition. The medicine will also help slow the gland from making androgens. This will lower the growth of male features in girls.
High doses of these medicines can have side effects like slowing growth or lowering bone mass. They can also lead to obesity and to a condition called Cushing disease. Your child will be checked often. Medicines will be changed as needed.
Some children need to take a medicine to replace cortisol. Cortisol is needed during stressful situations and illness. If your child is taking medicine to replace it, he or she may need extra doses during stressful events. Your child's doctor will make a medicine plan with you.
Depending on the type of CAH, medicine 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 child's condition if he or she is unable to tell someone about it.
Surgery can correct unusually formed genitalia. It is often done when the child is between 1-3 years of age.
CAH can’t be prevented.
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
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society
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Last reviewed May 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Kathleen A. Barry, MD
Last Updated: 7/30/2018
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