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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : What is Cushing’s syndrome?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Mary Pickett, M.D. is an Associate professor at Oregon Health & Science University where she is a primary care doctor for adults. She supervises and educates residents in the field of Internal Medicine, for outpatient and hospital care. She is a Lecturer for Harvard Medical School and a Senior Medical Editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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April 24, 2014
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One important hormone in your body is cortisol. Cortisol is a kind of steroid. You need only a small amount of cortisol most of the time. When you are ill or your body is under stress, a boost in the amount of cortisol you have in your blood can help your body combat that stress.

But if you had a high level of cortisol in your blood all the time, this wouldn’t be healthy. Having high levels of cortisol for months or more causes symptoms and changes in your body.

These include:

  • Weight gain
  • Skin tanning or bruising
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Male pattern of hair growth
  • Fullness of the cheeks and chin that give you  a “moon-shaped” face
  • Build-up of body fat in your upper back
  • Thin bones
  • Muscle weakness
  • High blood sugar

These are the features of Cushing’s syndrome.

Causes of Cushing’s syndrome include:

  • Taking a corticosteroid medicine, such as prednisone or dexamethasone, for many weeks or longer.
  • A tumor in one of the adrenal glands that makes excess cortisol. The adrenal glands are small organs in the abdomen that sit on top of the kidneys.
  • A tumor in the pituitary gland that makes too much of a hormone called ACTH. This hormone stimulates the adrenal glands to keep pumping out much more cortisol than the body needs.
  • Adrenal glands that become more active than is needed, a condition called “adrenal hyperplasia.”

To treat Cushing’s syndrome, your doctor will need to find the source of the extra cortisol. This can include blood tests and imaging tests, such as a CT scan or MRI.

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