Cushing’s syndrome

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Cushing’s syndrome is caused when there’s too much of a hormone called cortisol in the body. The most common cause is from taking steroid medication for extended periods. Read about the symptoms and treatments.

What is Cushing’s syndrome?

The pituitary gland in your brain releases a chemical signal called ACTH. This tells the adrenal glands to make more cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone made in your adrenal glands. It’s vital for controlling your metabolism and immune system. Cortisol is also very important for your response to stress. Cushing’s syndrome is the symptoms and signs you have when there is too much cortisol in the body.

What are the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome?

You may find the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome bothersome. Cushing’s syndrome can affect your face shape and cause unwanted weight gain.

Common symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include:

  • Weight gain around your tummy with weight loss of your arms and legs

  • Rounding of your face

  • Flushing of your face

  • Skin that’s thin and bruises easily

  • Large purple stretch marks

  • Muscle weakness, particularly around the shoulders and hips

  • Mood swings that make you more irritable, anxious or sad than normal

  • Low sex drive

  • Your periods can become irregular, less frequent, or stop

Other signs a doctor may look for include:

  • High blood pressure

  • Osteoporosis

  • Diabetes or insulin resistance

What causes Cushing’s syndrome?

The most common cause is from taking steroid medications such as prednisolone, hydrocortisone, or dexamethasone. Steroid medications contain a synthetic form of cortisol that affects the body.

In rare cases, the body itself produces too much cortisol. This could be caused by a tumour, either benign or malignant, in the adrenal gland or pituitary gland. 

Cushing’s syndrome in children

Cushing’s syndrome is rare in children. The symptoms and treatment of Cushing’s are similar in children and adults. Children with Cushing’s syndrome may stop growing or grow less quickly than they have been. If your child has symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome, book an appointment with a doctor. 

How is Cushing’s syndrome diagnosed?

If you’re not taking steroid medication, a doctor may need to carry out a few tests to check whether your body is making too much cortisol. There are tests to measure the amount of cortisol in your saliva, blood and pee. 

How is Cushing’s syndrome treated?

The treatment of Cushing’s syndrome depends on the cause. 

If it’s caused by taking too many steroids, then the amount of steroid you are taking may need to be changed. If you notice any symptoms while you’re taking steroids, do not stop taking them without speaking to a doctor. Stopping steroids suddenly can be dangerous for your health. 

The treatment for a tumour is surgery to remove it or radiotherapy to shrink it. There are also some medicines you can take to lower the amount of cortisol you produce.

When should I speak to a doctor?

Book an appointment if:

  • You have any of the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome

  • You’re taking steroids and are noticing any unusual side effects

What can Livi do?

A Livi healthcare professional can assess your symptoms and give you advice or refer you to a specialist if needed. If Cushing's syndrome is being considered then a Livi GP can help refer you to tests that can investigate. If necessary, they can also arrange for you to be seen by a specialist in Cushing's syndrome, called an endocrinologist.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi