A high level of cortisol in the body is a condition called hypercortisolism, or Cushing’s syndrome. Excessive use of cortisol or corticosteroid medication or the body’s overproduction of cortisol causes hypercortisolism. Symptoms occur when the cortisol levels are abnormally high for an extended period of time. As cortisol is an important hormone for the body’s energy utilization and storage, there are numerous symptoms that can be attributed to this disease.
One of the most common symptoms of hypercortisolism is weight gain, reports the Mayo Clinic. The weight gain typically happens in the central upper body. Patients can have fat deposits on their shoulders, chest and upper back, which may be described as a "buffalo hump." The patient’s legs and arms will appear thin. Often the patient’s face will become round and turn slightly red. This type of facial change is termed a "moon face," according to "The New York Times" Health Guide.
Hypercortisolism can cause various skin changes, according to MedlinePlus.com. People suffering from high levels of cortisol can develop acne and frequent skin infections. Purple lesions measuring at least half an inch wide can be found on the breasts, abdomen and thighs. The patient’s skin may appear thin and bruise easily. Patients may also start to increasingly grow facial and body hair.
Muscle and Bone Symptoms
High levels of cortisol also affect the muscles and bones, states "The New York Times" Health Guide. Patients may suffer from deep pain that seems to originate from the bone, weak muscles, and a chronic backache that worsens when the patient performs basic activities. The bones may also start to thin and become brittle. This can lead to a high risk for bone fractures, especially in the ribs and spine.
Cushing’s syndrome can affect women and men in different ways, reports MedlinePlus.com. Women may develop excessive hair growth on the face, thorax and thighs. A normal menstrual cycle may become irregular or delayed or may even stop. Men will experience a decrease in fertility, libido and impotence. These symptoms are all reversible if the patient receives prompt medical care.
Patients with chronically high levels of cortisol may often develop neurological signs of the disease, as well as an elevation in blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic. Neurological signs include depression, irritability and anxiety. Patients may also develop frequent headaches and chronic fatigue.
High Blood Pressure
Cushing’s syndrome can also cause high blood pressure, also called hypertension. Blood pressure that is consistently higher than 120 mmHg over 80 mmHg characterizes this condition. The weight gain associated with high levels of cortisol also causes hypertension.