Cushing’s Syndrome and Skin Problems

By Afsaneh Khetrapal, BSc (Hons)

Cushing’s Syndrome (sometimes called hypercortisolism) is a hormonal disease caused by an abnormally high level of the hormone cortisol in the body. This may arise because of an endogenous or exogenous source of cortisol. Endogenous causes include the elevated production of cortisol by the adrenal glands, while exogenous causes include the excessive use of cortisol or other similar steroid (glucocorticoid) hormones over a prolonged period of time.

The adrenal glands are situated just above each kidney, and form part of the endocrine system. They have numerous functions such as the production of hormones called catecholamines, which includes epinephrine and norepinephrine. Interestingly, the outer layer (cortex) of the adrenal glands has the distinct responsibility of producing cortisol. This hormone is best known for its crucial role in the bodily response to stress.

At physiologically appropriate levels, cortisol is vital in maintaining normal sleep-wake cycles, and acts to increase blood sugar levels. It suppresses the immune system, regulates the effect of insulin on the metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and help with the homeostasis of water in the body.

Exogenous corticosteroids can also lead to Cushing’s syndrome, when they are used as a form of long-term treatment for various medical conditions. In fact, the long-term use of steroid medication is the most common reason for the development of Cushing’s syndrome.

Prednisolone is the most commonly prescribed steroid medicine. It belongs to a class of medicine that is sometimes used to treat conditions such as certain forms of arthritis and cancer. Other uses include the rapid and effective reduction of inflammation in conditions such as asthma and multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as the treatment of autoimmune conditions such as lupus erythematosus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Overall, Cushing’s syndrome is quite uncommon and affects approximately 1 in 50,000 people. Most of them are adults between the ages of 20 and 50.  Women are 3 times more commonly affected than men. Additionally, patients who are obese, or those who have type 2 diabetes with poorly controlled blood sugar and blood pressure show a greater predisposition to the disorder.

Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome

There are numerous symptoms associated with Cushing’s syndrome, which range from muscle weakness, hypertension, curvature of the spine (kyphosis), osteoporosis, and depression, to fatigue Specific symptoms which pertain to the skin are as follows:

  • Thinning of the skin and other mucous membranes: the skin becomes dry and bruises easily. Cortisol causes the breakdown of some dermal proteins along with the weakening of small blood vessels. In fact, the skin may become so weak as to develop a shiny, paper-thin quality which allows it to be torn easily.
  • Increased susceptibility of skin to infections
  • Poor wound healing  of bruises, cuts, and scratches
  • Spots appear on the upper body, that is, on the face, chest or shoulders
  • Darkened skin which is seen on the neck
  • Wide, red-purple streaks (at least half an inch wide) called striae which are most common on the sides of the torso, the lower abdomen, thighs, buttocks, arms, and breasts, or in areas of weight gain. The accumulation of fat caused by Cushing’s syndrome stretches the skin which is already thin and weakened due to cortisol action, causing it to hemorrhage and stretch permanently, healing by fibrosis.
  • Acne: this can develop in patients of all ages.
  • Swollen ankles: this is caused by the accumulation of fluid, called edema.
  • Hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating)

Reviewed by Dr Liji Thomas, MD

From http://www.news-medical.net/health/Cushings-Syndrome-and-Skin-Problems.aspx

If One Partner Has Cushing’s Syndrome, Can The Couple Still Get Pregnant?

Cushing’s syndrome can affect fertility in both men and women.

Women

The high levels of cortisol in Cushing’s syndrome disrupt a woman’s ovaries. Her menstrual periods may stop completely or become irregular. As a result, women with Cushing’s syndrome almost always have difficulty becoming pregnant.5,6,7 For those who do become pregnant, the risk of miscarriage is high.5,6,7

In rare cases, usually when a woman’s Cushing’s syndrome is caused by a benign adrenal tumor, pregnancy can occur, but it brings high risk for the mother and fetus.5,6,7

After a woman is treated for Cushing’s syndrome, her ovaries often recover from the effects of too much cortisol. Her regular menstrual cycles will return, and she can become pregnant.8

In some women, regular periods do not return after they are treated for Cushing’s syndrome. This occurs if surgery removes the part of the pituitary gland involved in reproduction.4 An infertility specialist can prescribe hormone therapy to bring back regular periods, ovulation, and fertility.8

Men

A man diagnosed with Cushing’s syndrome may have a decline in sperm production and could have reduced fertility.9 He also might experience a lowered sex drive as well as impotence (pronounced IM-puh-tuhns). In addition, some medications used to treat Cushing’s syndrome can reduce fertility.10 However, fertility usually recovers after Cushing’s syndrome is cured and treatment has stopped.9

Does Cushing’s syndrome affect pregnancy?

Cushing’s syndrome can cause serious and potentially life-threatening effects for the mother and the fetus during pregnancy.11,12 For example, Cushing’s syndrome raises a woman’s risk of developing pregnancy-related high blood pressure (called preeclampsia, pronounced pree-i-KLAMP-see-uh, or eclampsia) and/or pregnancy diabetes, which also is called gestational (pronounced je-STEY-shuhn-ul) diabetes). Infection and slow healing of any wounds are more likely, as is heart failure. When the syndrome is caused by a tumor, it will be surgically removed as early as possible to reduce any threat.13


  1. Margulies, P. (n.d.). Adrenal diseases—Cushing’s syndrome: The facts you need to know. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from National Adrenal Diseases Foundation website http://www.nadf.us/adrenal-diseases/cushings-syndrome/ External Web Site Policy
  2. Nieman, L. K., & Ilias, I. (2005). Evaluation and treatment of Cushing’s syndrome. Journal of American Medicine, 118(12), 1340-1346. PMID 16378774.
  3. American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Fact sheet on pituitary tumors. Retrieved May 19, 2012, fromhttp://documents.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003133-pdf.pdf (PDF – 171 KB). External Web Site Policy
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  5. Abraham, M. R., & Smith, C. V. (n.d.). Adrenal disease and pregnancy.Retrieved April 8, 2012, fromhttp://emedicine.medscape.com/article/127772-overview – aw2aab6b6. External Web Site Policy
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  7. Lindsay, J. R., Jonklaas, J., Oldfield, E. H., & Nieman, L. K. (2005). Cushing’s syndrome during pregnancy: Personal experience and review of the literature. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 90(5), 3077.PMID 15705919.
  8. Klibansky, A. (n.d.). Pregnancy after cure of Cushing’s disease. Retrieved April 27, 2012, fromhttp://03342db.netsolhost.com/page/pregnancy_after_cure_of_cushings_disease.php. External Web Site Policy
  9. Jequier, A.M. Endocrine infertility. In Male infertility: A clinical guide (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press, 2011: chap 20, pages 187-188. Retrieved May 19, 2012, from http://books.google.com/books?id=DQL0YC79uCMC&pg=PA188&lpg=PA188&dq=male+infertility+causes+and+treatment+Cushing&source=bl&ots=k1Ah5tVJC7&sig=WJR4N0wUawlh0Rant31QMPq6ufs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hGe5T-LrHYSX6AHgrvmzCw&ved=0CGoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=male%20infertility%20causes%20and%20treatment%20Cushing&f=false. External Web Site Policy
  10. Stewart, P. M., & Krone, N. P. (2011). The adrenal cortex. In Kronenberg, H. M., Shlomo, M., Polonsky, K. S., Larsen P. R. (Eds.). Williams textbook of endocrinology (12th ed.). (chap. 15). Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier.
  11. Abraham, M. R., & Smith, C. V. Adrenal disease and pregnancy. Retrieved April 8, 2012, from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/127772-overview – aw2aab6b6. External Web Site Policy
  12. Buescher, M. A. (1996). Cushing’s syndrome in pregnancy. Endocrinologist, 6, 357-361.
  13. Ezzat, S., Asa, S. L., Couldwell, W. T., Barr, C. E., Dodge, W. E., Vance M. L., et al. (2004). The prevalence of pituitary adenomas: A systematic review.Cancer, 101(3), 613-619. PMID 15274075.

From https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/cushing/conditioninfo/pages/faqs.aspx

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