Health Conditions A-Z Endocrine Diseases What Is Cushing’s Syndrome? By Laura Dorwart Laura Dorwart Laura Dorwart is a health journalist with a focus on mental health, pregnancy-related conditions, and disability rights. Her writing has been published in VICE, SELF, The New York Times, The Guardian, and many more. health's editorial guidelines Published on April 14, 2023 Medically reviewed by Kelly Wood, MD Medically reviewed by Kelly Wood, MD Kelly Wood, MD, is a board-certified endocrinologist with a special interest in osteoporosis and metabolic bone disease. learn more Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on Pinterest Email this page In This Article View All In This Article Symptoms Causes Diagnosis Treatment Prevention Related Conditions Living With Cushing's Syndrome Natalia Gdovskaia / Getty Images Cushing’s syndrome, also called hypercortisolism, is a hormonal disorder caused by excess levels of cortisol. Often known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol plays a role in regulating your blood sugar, blood pressure, metabolism, and inflammation levels. It’s produced by the adrenal glands, which are just above your kidneys. Common symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include easy bruising, changes in fat distribution, and a round face. If left untreated, it can lead to various complications, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease. A healthcare provider can diagnose and treat Cushing's syndrome. They can also discuss your risk for developing the condition. Cushing's Syndrome Symptoms There are many possible symptoms associated with Cushing’s syndrome. These tend to get worse as the disorder continues. Some of the most common symptoms include a round, full face, sometimes called "moon face," and weight gain or changes in fat distribution. A person with Cushing's syndrome might have thin limbs and carry excess weight around the stomach, or have a lump on the back between the shoulders. If you have extremely high levels of cortisol, you may also notice: Easy bruisingPurple stretch marks on the stomach, arms, thighs, or breastsMuscle weaknessBone pain or tendernessBackacheFatigueMental health or behavioral changes, such as mood swings and depressionHeadacheIncreased thirstFrequent urination In children, Cushing’s syndrome may also cause slower or delayed growth. Women with Cushing’s syndrome sometimes notice irregular periods and excess hair on the face and body. Some men with the disorder develop sexual dysfunction, such as reduced libido and an inability to sustain an erection. What Causes Cushing's Syndrome? Cushing’s syndrome is most commonly caused by the long-term use of corticosteroids, such as prednisone (Rayos). These medicines, which act similarly to cortisol, are usually prescribed to treat chronic inflammatory conditions like lupus or asthma. More rarely, some people develop the disorder when their body produces too much cortisol on its own. This is known as endogenous Cushing’s syndrome. Causes of endogenous Cushing’s syndrome may include: Pituitary tumorsAdrenal tumors Certain kinds of lung cancersInherited endocrine disorders Risk Factors Anyone can develop Cushing’s syndrome, including children. However, it is more common in adults ages 30-50, and especially in women. Other risk factors for the disorder include: Long-term steroid use Type 2 diabetes Very high blood sugar High blood pressure Clinical obesity How Is Cushing's Syndrome Diagnosed? Because Cushing’s syndrome has many possible causes, diagnosing it can be complex. Your healthcare provider may refer you to an endocrinologist—a doctor specializing in hormonal disorders—for follow-up testing. There are several lab tests for Cushing’s syndrome that may require samples of your blood, urine, or saliva for cortisol levels. These tests include: Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) test, which measures the level of ACTH in the blood. This hormone prompts the adrenal glands to produce more cortisolDexamethasone suppression test, which involves taking a low dose of a glucocorticoid and testing your blood cortisol levels Dexamethasone-CRH test, which uses blood samples to differentiate between Cushing’s syndrome and another condition that could be raising cortisol levels If your healthcare provider believes that your symptoms may be related to a tumor, you may have to undergo imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computerized tomography (CT) scan. Treatments for Cushing's Syndrome If you have Cushing’s syndrome, your treatment will depend on the cause of your excess cortisol levels. If corticosteroid exposure is causing your symptoms, your healthcare provider may lower your dose gradually or recommend an alternative medication. Meanwhile, Cushing’s syndrome due to a pituitary, adrenal, or other tumor may be treated by: Surgery to remove the tumor, the adrenal glands, or both Radiation therapy Chemotherapy Medications to correct hormonal imbalances Medications to block cortisol production How to Prevent Cushing's Syndrome There’s no way to prevent Cushing’s syndrome caused by tumors or an inherited condition. If you are taking or about to start taking any kind of corticosteroid, talk to your healthcare provider about your risk for developing Cushing’s syndrome. They may recommend lowering your dosage, switching to another medication, or taking steroid medicines only as needed. Related Conditions Over time, prolonged exposure to very high cortisol levels can increase your risk for various health complications. Many people with Cushing’s syndrome develop comorbid conditions, such as: Insulin resistance Impaired glucose tolerance Diabetes Osteoporosis (bone loss) Hypertension (high blood pressure) High cholesterol Depression Problems with memory Cushing’s syndrome can also affect your body’s ability to fight off infections. Plus, muscle weakness and loss of bone density from Cushing's syndrome and its related conditions may make you more prone to falls and fractures. Living With Cushing's Syndrome Research suggests that people with Cushing’s syndrome have a heightened risk of death from related health problems such as heart complications and infections. If left untreated, Cushing’s syndrome can lead to potentially fatal conditions, including: Heart disease Heart attack Blood clots Stroke Problems with the kidneys However, Cushing’s syndrome is usually curable. Diagnosing and treating the disorder early on can help reduce your risk for developing related conditions that might have more lasting symptoms. Talk to your healthcare provider about options for treatment and ways to manage your cortisol levels. Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! Tell us why! Other Submit 7 Sources Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Cushing’s syndrome. MedlinePlus. Cushing syndrome. Nieman LK. Patient education: Cushing's syndrome (beyond the basics). In: Lacroix A, Rubinow K, eds. UpToDate. UpToDate; 2021. National Institutes of Health. What are the treatments for Cushing syndrome? FamilyDoctor.org. Cushing’s syndrome. Sharma ST, Nieman LK, Feelders RA. Comorbidities in Cushing's disease. Pituitary. 2015;18(2):188-94. doi:10.1007/s11102-015-0645-6 National Institutes of Health. Is there a cure for Cushing syndrome?