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Congenital adrenal hyperplasia

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) refers to any of several autosomal recessive diseases resulting from defects in steps of the synthesis of cortisol from cholesterol by the adrenal glands. Most of these diseases involve excessive or defective production of sex steroids and can pervert or impair development of primary or secondary sex characteristics in affected infants, children, and adults. Only a small minority of people with CAH can be said to have an intersex condition, but this attracted American public attention in the late 1990s and many accounts of varying accuracy have appeared in the popular media. more...

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Examples of problems caused by various forms of CAH:

  • ambiguous genitalia such that it is difficult to determine sex
  • vomiting leading to dehydration and death in early infancy
  • early pubic hair and rapid growth in childhood
  • precocious puberty or failure of puberty to occur
  • excessive facial hair, virilization, and/or menstrual irregularity in adolescence
  • infertility due to anovulation

Overview of the multiple types of CAH

Cortisol is an adrenal steroid hormone necessary for life; production begins in the second month of fetal life. Inefficient cortisol production results in rising levels of ACTH, which in turn induces overgrowth (hyperplasia) and overactivity of the steroid-producing cells of the adrenal cortex. The defects causing adrenal hyperplasia are congenital (i.e., present at birth).

Cortisol deficiency in CAH is usually partial, and not the most serious problem for an affected person. Synthesis of cortisol shares steps with synthesis of mineralocorticoids such as aldosterone, androgens such as testosterone, and estrogens such as estradiol. The resulting excessive or deficient production of these three classes of hormones produce the most important problems for people with CAH. Specific enzyme inefficiencies are associated with characteristic patterns of over- or underproduction of mineralocorticoids or sex steroids.

In all its forms, congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency accounts for about 95% of diagnosed cases of CAH. Unless another specific enzyme is mentioned, "CAH" in nearly all contexts refers to 21-hydroxylase deficiency.

  • Severe 21-hydroxylase deficiency causes salt-wasting CAH, with life-threatening vomiting and dehydration occurring within the first weeks of life. Severe 21-hydroxylase deficiency is also the most common cause of ambiguous genitalia due to prenatal virilization of genetically female (XX) infants.
  • Moderate 21-hydroxylase deficiency is referred to as simple virilizing CAH; and typically is recognized by causing virilization of prepubertal children.
  • Still milder forms of 21-hydroxylase deficiency are referred to as non-classical CAH and can cause androgen effects and infertility in adolescent and adult women.

CAH due to deficiencies of other enzymes than 21-hydroxylase present many of the same management challenges as 21-hydroxylase deficiency, but some involve mineralocorticoid excess or sex steroid deficiency.

  • Lipoid congenital adrenal hyperplasia
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 17α-hydroxylase deficiency
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase deficiency
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 11β-hydroxylase deficiency

Further variability is introduced by the degree of enzyme inefficiency produced by the specific alleles each patient has. Some alleles result in more severe degrees of enzyme inefficiency. In general, severe degrees of inefficiency produce changes in the fetus and problems in prenatal or perinatal life. Milder degrees of inefficiency are usually associated with excessive or deficient sex hormone effects in childhood or adolescence, while the mildest form of CAH interferes with ovulation and fertility in adults.


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Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia: Not Really a Zebra
From American Family Physician, 3/1/99 by Michael A. Deaton

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia was once considered a rare inherited disorder with severe manifestations. Mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia, however, is common, affecting one in 100 to 1,000 persons in the United States and frequently eluding diagnosis. Both classic and nonclassic forms of the disease are caused by deficiencies in the adrenal enzymes that are used to synthesize glucocorticoids. The net result is increased production from the adrenal gland of cortisol precursors and androgens. Even mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia can result in life-threatening sinus or pulmonary infections, orthostatic syncope, shortened stature and severe acne. Women with mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia often present with hirsutism, oligomenorrhea or infertility. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is diagnosed by demonstration of excess cortisol precursors in the serum during an adrenal corticotropic hormone challenge. Diagnosis of congenital adrenal hyerplasia in fetuses that are at risk for congenital adrenal hyperplasia can be determined using human leukocyte antigen haplotype or by demonstration of excess cortisol precursors in amniotic fluid. Treatment includes carefully monitored hormone replacement therapy. Recognition of the problem and timely replacement therapy can reduce morbidity and enhance quality of life in patients that are affected by congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

Classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia is rare, affecting only one in 14,000 patients, but mild forms of the disease may occur in one of every 100 to 1,000 persons.1,2 The condition is caused by a deficient synthesis of cortisol; most cases are related to 21-hydroxylase or 11-b hydroxylase deficiency3-5 (Figure 1). The affected enzyme can be totally or partially impaired. The degree of enzyme insufficiency determines the severity of the condition.2,5

The hallmark of congenital adrenal hyperplasia is inadequate production of glucocorticoids.1 Patients with mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia are frequently unable to mount sufficient stress responses to trauma and infection. Glucocorticoid precursors accumulate in these persons and are converted to androgenic steroids, causing shortened stature, early puberty, severe acne, and virilization and infertility in females.2,3,5,6 Mineralocorticoid synthesis can also be affected, resulting in electrolyte disturbances, hypotension and syncope.5,6

Enzyme Pathways and Genetics 21-hydroxylase

Ninety percent of patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia have 21- hydroxylase deficiency.2-4,6 Because this enzyme functions in both glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid synthesis, some patients with 21- hydroxylase deficiency have insufficient amounts of cortisone and aldosterone (Figure 2). These persons have the "salt-wasting" form of congenital adrenal hyperplasia, with hyponatremia, hypovolemia, hyperkalemia and hypotension.1-4,6 The enzyme 21-hydroxylase is a chromosome 6, human leukocyte antigen (HLA)Elinked, cytochrome P450 enzyme that is found in the smooth endoplasmic reticulum. Its DNA sequence can be altered by at least nine mutations, many of which leave the enzyme impaired but not totally inactive.2,3,6 The incidence of classic congenital adrenal hyperplasia is especially high in Madagascar and certain areas of Alaska. Mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia occurs more frequently in Ashkenazi Jews, and in Hispanic, Slavic and Italian populations.2,3,6

11-[section] hydroxylase

Deficiency of 11-b hydroxylase is found in 8 to 9 percent of patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia.2,5 Glucocorticoid synthesis remains impaired but, in this disorder, deoxycortisol accumulates (Figure 3). Deoxycortisol and its metabolites have mineralocorticoid properties and may cause hypertension when they accumulate.2,3,7 Thus, simple blood pressure measurements may help determine the underlying type of congenital adrenal hyperplasia. The enzyme 11-b hydroxylase is a chromosome 8, cytochrome P450 enzyme located in the mitochondria. Known gene abnormalities include insertions, deletions, mis-sense/nonsense codons, and point mutations. Some of these abnormalities result in severe dysfunction of the enzyme while others result in only partial impairment.3-5 Classic 11-b hydroxylase deficiency occurs in approximately one per 100,000 births and occurs more frequently in Moroccan Jews. Mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 11-b hydroxylase deficiency is more common, however, and may be responsible for 1 to 2 percent of cases of hirsutism and oligomenorrhea in women.3-5

Manifestations and Recognition

classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia

The classic form of congenital adrenal hyperplasia occurs when cortisol synthesis is extremely low. The disorder usually manifests in childhood. Hypersecretion of adrenal androgens causes masculinization of the external genitalia of the female fetus. Affected infants can have ambiguous genitalia or even erroneous gender assignment. Because testicles are not present to produce mullerian inhibiting factor, the internal female organs are intact.1,2,4

Children with classic congenital adrenal hyperplasia may lack sufficient amounts of cortisol to mount a stress response, and they frequently succumb to minor illnesses. Those who survive to adulthood experience premature puberty. Premature closure of the epiphyses results in short stature even though these children grow at an accelerated rate when young. Severe acne is also a frequent problem. Adult women with classic congenital adrenal hyperplasia may have pronounced hirsutism and amenorrhea.1-4,6

mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia

Mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia is much more common than the classic form.2,3,5,6 Men and women with mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia may have normal height compared with the general population, yet shortened stature when compared with their parents. Near-syncope may be a chronic or recurrent problem in these patients, and they frequently have a history of severe acne and mild hyperpigmentation. Some people with mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia can mount limited glucocorticoid stress responses and are thus never recognized as having the disorder. Others, however, have frequent illnesses and decompensate when challenged by common infections or minor trauma.1-4,6 Women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia may have clitorimegaly and poorly developed vaginal labia. These women may also be hirsute and frequently present with oligomenorrhea, infertility or polycystic ovary syndrome.1-7

Diagnosis and Treatment

adults and children

When mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia is suspected, elevated serum levels of 17-hydroxyprogesterone suggest 21-hydroxylase deficiency, and elevated deoxycorticosterone/ 11-deoxycortisol levels suggest 11-b hydroxylase deficiency (Table 1; Figures 4 and 5). In patients who have few or no symptoms of mild congenital hyperplasia, the risks of treatment may outweigh the benefits. Patients who require treatment should be given glucocorticoid replacement therapy at the lowest dosage that achieves adrenal suppression; higher dosages can cause Cushingoid features and growth retardation.

Maintenance therapy is generally achieved with hydrocortisone, in a dosage of 6 to 25 mg per m2 per day given in two to three divided doses.1,3,4,8 Hydrocortisone is preferred over other glucocorticoids because it is short acting and can be given in pulses that mimic natural cortisol secretion. Equivalent dosages of prednisone or dexamethasone can be used to simplify dosing regimens in noncompliant patients; however, hydrocortisone is more physiologically similar to cortisol and has a lower potential for growth suppression in children.3,4 Periods of physiologic stress, such as severe illness or surgery, require transient dosages of three to 10 times that used for maintenance therapy.1,3,4,8 Stress dosages are usually not needed in mild illnesses such as colds or otitis media.2-4

Corticosteroid replacement therapy must be approached carefully. Hydrocortisone dosages that return 17-hydroxyprogesterone/11- deoxycortisol levels to normal frequently induce Cushingoid features, whereas lower dosages may leave the effects of excess androgen production unchecked. Consultation with an endocrinologist is recommended for patients who require complex hormone regimens.

Many patients benefit from multidrug therapy. Even normotensive patients with 21-hydroxylase deficiency (Figure 2) may have improved adrenal suppression with the addition of the aldosterone analog fludrocortisone (Florinef) at dosages of 0.05 to 0.2 mg per day to their regimen.

The use of flutamide (Eulexin), an androgen inhibitor, in a dosage of approximately 10 mg per kg per day in three divided doses, in patients with all types of congenital adrenal hyperplasia may permit hydrocortisone to be given at lower dosages.8,9 Aromatase inhibitors that prevent conversion of androgens to estrogen (such as testolactone [Teslac], in a dosage of 40 mg per kg per day), may help children with mild congenital adrenal hyperplasia to achieve their height potential.1,8,9

prenatal therapy

If one child in a family is already affected by congenital adrenal hyperplasia, the HLA haplotypes of the parents and the affected child should be determined. Subsequent pregnancies can then be accurately evaluated for congenital adrenal hyperplasia by HLA haplotype analysis of chorionic villus or amniotic cells.2,3 In families at risk (e.g., one or both parents affected by some form of congenital adrenal hyperplasia) but with no affected children, congenital adrenal hyperplasia can be diagnosed during pregnancy by DNA analysis of chorionic villus or amniotic fluid cells or by measuring 17-hydroxy steroids in the amniotic fluid.10 All women with fetuses at risk for congenital adrenal hyperplasia should receive dexamethasone in a dosage of 0.02 mg per kg per day, divided into two or three daily doses.

Treatment should be initiated immediately on confirmation of pregnancy.4,10 Dexamethasone readily crosses the placenta and suppresses the fetal adrenal gland. If the fetus is male, dexamethasone therapy can be stopped until after the infant is born. Affected female fetuses, however, require treatment throughout pregnancy.

Treatment of affected fetuses with maternal dexamethasone reduces the incidence and severity of virilization of female fetuses. Birth weight, length, head circumference and congenital anomalies of affected infants whose mothers are treated with dexamethasone during pregnancy are comparable to those of infants who do not have congenital adrenal hyperplasia.10 Maternal complications from treatment with dexamethasone can be expected and include excess weight gain, mood swings and hypertension.10,11

The authors thank Daniel Kopp, M.D., and Fred Pfalzgraf, M.D., for their thoughtful reviews of the manuscript.

The opinions and assertions contained herein are the private views of the authors and are not to be construed as official positions of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army or the Department of the Navy.


1. Cutler GB Jr, Laue L. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21- hydroxylase deficiency. N Engl J Med 1990;323:1806-13.

2. New MI. Genetic disorders of adrenal hormone synthesis. Horm Res 1992;37(suppl 3):22-33.

3. Miller WL. Congenital adrenal hyperplasias. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am 1991;20:721-49.

4. New MI. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia. In: DeGroot LJ, ed. Endocrinology. 3d ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1995:1813-35.

5. White PC, Speiser PW. Steroid 11 beta-hydroxylase deficiency and related disorders. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am 1994;23:325-39.

6. Migeon CJ, Donohoue PA. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia caused by 21- hydroxylase deficiency. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am 1991;20:277-96.

7. Baskin HJ. Screening for late-onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia in hirsutism or amenorrhea. Arch Intern Med 1987;147:847-8.

8. Merke DP, Cutler GB Jr. New approaches to the treatment of congenital adrenal hyperplasia. JAMA 1997;277:1073-6.

9. Laue L, Merke DP, Jones JV, Barnes KM, Hill S, Cutler GB Jr. A preliminary study of flutamide, testolactone, and reduced hydrocortisone dose in the treatment of congenital adrenal hyperplasia. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1996;81:3535-9.

10. Karaviti LP, Mercado AB, Mercado MB, Speiser PW, Buegeleisen M, Crawford C, et al. Prenatal diagnosis/treatment in families at risk for infants with steroid 21-hydroxylase deficiency (congenital adrenal hyperplasia). J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol 1992;41:445-51.

11. Seckl JR, Miller WL. How safe is long-term prenatal glucocorticoid treatment? JAMA 1997;277:1077-9.

The Authors

MICHAEL A. DEATON, M.D, PH.D., is currently Chief of Primary Care and Community Medicine at General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He received a doctorate in anatomy from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Tenn., and a medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine, Bethesda, Md. Dr. Deaton completed a residency in family practice at Tripler Medical Center, Honolulu, Hawaii.

JOHN E. GLORIOSO, M.D., is currently Chief of Family Practice and Aviation Medicine at Yuma Proving Grounds, Yuma, Ariz. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, and completed a residency in family practice at Tripler Medical Center. He is a graduate of the Army Aviation Medicine Course.

DAVID B. MCLEAN, M.D., is currently a family physician on staff at Makalapa Clinic, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He received a medical degree from Virginia Commonwealth University Medical College of Virginia School of Medicine, Richmond, and completed a residency in family practice at Tripler Medical Center.

Address correspondence to Michael A. Deaton, M.D., Ph.D., Division of Primary Care and Community Medicine, USA MEDDAC, General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital, 126 Missouri Ave., Fort Leonard Wood, MO 65473. Reprints are not available from the authors.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Academy of Family Physicians
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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