Cushing disease is a specific type of Cushing syndrome that develops as a result of a pituitary tumor. Proper treatment can help prevent serious complications of either condition.

Cushing syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that develops as a result of too much cortisol in your body.

It occurs in two forms. Endogenous Cushing syndrome happens when your adrenal glands release too much cortisol. Exogenous Cushing syndrome happens when excess cortisol comes from sources outside your body, usually from glucocorticoid medications.

Cushing disease is a specific type of endogenous Cushing syndrome in which your body produces too much cortisol as a result of a benign pituitary tumor called an adenoma.

Cushing syndrome and Cushing disease are often treatable, but without proper management they can cause severe complications such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

Read on to learn more about Cushing disease and Cushing syndrome.

Here’s a look at the symptoms of Cushing disease and Cushing syndrome.

Cushing syndrome symptoms

Cushing syndrome symptoms include:

Cushing disease symptoms

Cushing disease causes the same symptoms as Cushing syndrome. However, Cushing syndrome due to glucocorticoid medications tends to cause more pronounced symptoms than Cushing syndrome due to pituitary tumors.

Cushing disease and syndrome are caused by high levels of cortisol.

Cushing disease causes

Cushing disease is caused by a pituitary adenoma. This type of tumor is benign, meaning it’s not cancerous. Still, it can cause problems with hormones released by your pituitary gland.

Some adenomas cause your pituitary gland to produce too much adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). These tumors are called corticotroph adenomas and account for about 4% to 8% of all pituitary tumors.

ACTH acts on your adrenal glands to stimulate the production of cortisol. Your adrenal glands are located above your kidneys.

Cushing syndrome causes

In addition to pituitary tumors, other potential causes of Cushing syndrome include:

These are some of the risk factors for Cushing syndrome and Cushing disease.

Cushing disease risk factors

Cushing disease is caused by a pituitary tumor. Risk factors for pituitary tumors include:

  • family history
  • some genetic syndromes, such as:
    • multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 or type 4
    • McCune-Albright syndrome
    • Carney complex
    • familial isolated pituitary adenoma

Cushing syndrome risk factors

People who are taking glucocorticoid medications are at the highest risk of Cushing syndrome. These medications are often prescribed to treat inflammatory and autoimmune conditions such as:

It’s important to contact a doctor if you develop potential symptoms of Cushing syndrome or Cushing disease, such as unexplained weight gain or a fatty hump between your shoulders. These conditions are often treatable, but if left untreated they can lead to life threatening complications.

It’s especially important to see a doctor if you’re currently taking glucocorticoids.

Here’s a look at some of the tests doctors use to diagnose Cushing syndrome and Cushing disease.

  • a review of your personal and family medical history
  • a physical exam
  • imaging tests to look for tumors, including:
  • lab tests, such as:
    • 24-hour urinary free-cortisol test: You collect urine samples over 24 hours to measure cortisol levels.
    • late night salivary cortisol test: You collect an evening saliva sample at home and send it to your doctor for testing.
    • low dose dexamethasone suppression test: You take a low dose of the glucocorticoid dexamethasone in the evening and receive a blood test the next morning to measure your cortisol levels.
    • dexamethasone-CRH test: You receive a combination of dexamethasone and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) to help see whether your high cortisol levels are caused by Cushing syndrome or something else.

Here’s a look at how Cushing disease and syndrome are treated.

Cushing disease treatment

Pituitary tumors causing Cushing disease are primarily treated with surgery. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the success rate for surgery is up to 90% when it’s performed by an experienced surgeon.

Even if your initial surgery isn’t successful, a second surgery or radiation therapy is often successful.

Cushing syndrome treatment

Treatment for Cushing syndrome depends on the underlying cause. If your symptoms are caused by glucocorticoids, the primary treatment is to taper off your medication.

Some cancerous tumors can produce cortisol. These tumors might be treated with:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy

Tumors on your adrenal gland are usually treated by removing the entire gland. If both of your adrenal glands are removed, you’ll need to take medications to replace your adrenal hormones.

There are no known ways to prevent Cushing disease or pituitary adenoma.

You might be able to help prevent Cushing syndrome by following your doctor’s instructions when taking glucocorticoids and avoiding taking more than your prescribed dose.

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about Cushing disease and Cushing syndrome.

What is the life expectancy of a person with Cushing disease or syndrome?

With treatment, people with Cushing disease or syndrome often have a comparable life expectancy to people in the larger population. But without treatment, these conditions can lead to fatal complications.

How long can you have Cushing disease or syndrome without knowing?

Some people go many years without receiving a diagnosis of Cushing disease or syndrome. People who don’t seek medical attention may never receive a diagnosis.

What happens if Cushing syndrome goes untreated?

If Cushing syndrome is left untreated, it can lead to fatal complications such as stroke, unmanaged diabetes, or a heart attack.

Cushing syndrome and Cushing disease are caused by elevated cortisol levels. Cushing syndrome is most commonly caused by chronically taking high amounts of glucocorticoid medications. Cushing disease is a specific type of Cushing syndrome that develops as a result of a pituitary tumor.

It’s important to get medical attention as soon as possible if you think you might have either condition. With proper medical treatment, you can help prevent severe complications such as heart disease.