Graves' Disease: An Overview

Woman self-examining her throat
There are a number of symptoms, as well as tests, that help you tell if you are hyperthyroid. VOISIN/Canopy/Getty
What is Graves’ disease?

Graves' Disease is a type of autoimmune disease in which the immune system over stimulates the thyroid gland, causing hyperthyroidism. Over-activity of the thyroid gland is also sometimes called "diffuse toxic goiter." The thyroid gland helps set the rate of metabolism (the rate at which the body uses energy), and when it is over-stimulated, it produces more thyroid hormones than the body needs.
High levels of thyroid hormones can cause difficult side effects. This is an extremely rare disease that tends to affect women over the age of 20. The incidence is about 5 in 10,000 people.

What is an autoimmune disease?

An autoimmune disease occurs when the body's immune system becomes misdirected and attacks the very organs, cells, or tissues that it was designed to protect. About 75% of autoimmune diseases occur in women, most frequently during their childbearing years.

What are the symptoms of Graves' Disease?

The most common symptoms of Grave’s Disease, or thyroid over-stimulation include insomnia, irritability, weight loss without dieting, heat sensitivity, increased perspiration, fine or brittle hair, muscular weakness, eye changes, lighter menstrual flow, rapid heart beat, and hand tremors. Grave’s Disease is the only kind of hyperthyroidism that is associated with inflammation of the eyes, swelling of the tissue around the eyes, and protrusion, or bulging, of the eyes.
Some patients will develop lumpy reddish thickening of the skin in front of the shins called pretibial myxedema. This skin condition is usually painless. The symptoms of this disease can occur gradually or very suddenly and are sometimes confused with other medical problems. Women can have Grave’s Disease and have no obvious symptoms at all.


How do I know if I have this disease?

The only way to positively know if you have Graves' Disease is to visit your doctor. Your doctor will perform a simple blood test that will be able to tell if your body has the correct amount of thyroid hormones.

What is the treatment for this disease?

There are many treatments for Graves' Disease.

Medications: There are some prescription medications that can lower the amount of thyroid hormones produced by the body, regulating them to normal levels.

Surgery: Part or all of the thyroid gland will be removed. In most cases, people who have surgery for Graves' Disease will develop an under-active thyroid (hypothyroidism), and will have to take thyroid replacement hormones for the rest of their lives.

Radioactive iodine: The iodine damages thyroid cells to shrink the thyroid gland, to reduce hormone levels. Like surgery, this condition usually leads to hypothyroidism, requiring medication for the rest of the patient's life.

After a diagnosis is made and a treatment is selected, you should return to your health care provider annually to make sure that your thyroid levels are normal and do not need to be adjusted.


What could happen if this disease is left untreated?

If left untreated, Grave's Disease can lead to more serious complications, including birth defects in pregnancy, increased risk of a miscarriage, and in extreme cases, death. Graves’ Disease is often accompanied by an increase in heart rate, which may lead to further heart complications.

Source: HHS

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