21-hydroxylase deficiency is an inherited disorder that affects the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys and produce a variety of hormones that regulate many essential functions in the body. In people with 21-hydroxylase deficiency, the adrenal glands produce excess androgens, which are male sex hormones.
There are three types of 21-hydroxylase deficiency. Two types are classic forms, known as the salt-wasting and simple virilizing types. The third type is called the non-classic type. The salt-wasting type is the most severe, the simple virilizing type is less severe, and the non-classic type is the least severe form.
Males and females with either classic form of 21-hydroxylase deficiency tend to have an early growth spurt, but their final adult height is usually shorter than others in their family. Additionally, affected individuals may have a reduced ability to have biological children (decreased fertility). Females may also develop excessive body hair growth (hirsutism), male pattern baldness, and irregular menstruation.
Approximately 75 percent of individuals with classic 21-hydroxylase deficiency have the salt-wasting type. Hormone production is extremely low in this form of the disorder. Affected individuals lose large amounts of sodium in their urine, which can be life-threatening in early infancy. Babies with the salt-wasting type can experience poor feeding, weight loss, dehydration, and vomiting. Individuals with the simple virilizing form do not experience salt loss.
In both the salt-wasting and simple virilizing forms of this disorder, females typically have external genitalia that do not look clearly male or female (ambiguous genitalia). Males usually have normal genitalia, but the testes may be small.
Females with the non-classic type of 21-hydroxylase deficiency have normal female genitalia. As affected females get older, they may experience hirsutism, male pattern baldness, irregular menstruation, and decreased fertility. Males with the non-classic type may have early beard growth and small testes. Some individuals with this type of 21-hydroxylase deficiency have no symptoms of the disorder.