Graves’ disease: Symptoms, treatment, and causes

Graves’ disease involves an overactive thyroid gland and results in an overproduction of thyroid hormones, or hyperthyroidism. It is relatively easy to treat. If left untreated, however, it can have serious consequences.

Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition. This meaning that the body’s immune system mistakes healthy cells for foreign invaders and attacks them. It is the most common autoimmune disorder in the United States.

A number of conditions can cause hyperthyroidism, but Graves’ disease is the most common, affecting around 1 in 200 people. It most often affects women under the age of 40, but it is also found in men.

Graves’ disease was originally known as “exophthalmic goiter” but is now named after Sir Robert Graves, an Irish doctor who first described the condition in 1835.

Fast facts on Graves’ disease:

Here are some key points on Graves’ disease. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.

It is the most common type of autoimmune disease in the United States.

Graves’ disease affects an estimated 2-3 percent of the world’s population.


woman annoyed at her desk
Irritability is a symptom of Graves’ disease.

The overproduction of thyroid hormones can have a variety of effects on the body.

Symptoms can include:

increased sweating

weight loss (without change in diet)


hand tremors

changes in menstrual cycle

erectile dysfunction and reduced libido

anxiety and irritability

an irregular or rapid heartbeat

Graves’ dermopathy, with thick red skin on the shins (rare)

enlargement of the thyroid gland (goiter)

heart failure


There are a variety of treatments available for Graves’ disease. The majority are aimed at inhibiting the overproduction of thyroid hormones by targeting the thyroid gland; others aim to reduce the symptoms.

Radioactive iodine therapy

The most commonly utilized treatment for Graves’ disease is radioactive iodine therapy; it has been used since the 1940s. It is still popular because it is non-invasive and highly effective.

Radioactive iodine is taken orally and directly targets the thyroid gland. Iodine is used by the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormones. When medication is taken, the radioactive iodine soon builds up in the thyroid gland and slowly destroys any overactive thyroid cells.

This results in a reduction in size of the thyroid gland, and fewer thyroid hormones being produced. Although there have been concerns that the radiation might increase risk of thyroid cancer, so far, no study has measured an increased danger. However, there is a very small risk of secondary cancers that may result from this treatment.

Anti-thyroid medication

Two common drugs that target the thyroid are propylthiouracil and methimazole; the latter is most common in the United States.

Anti-thyroid medication helps prevent the thyroid gland from producing excess amounts of hormones by blocking the oxidation of iodine in the thyroid gland.

Symptoms normally improve within 4-6 weeks of starting medication. Anti-thyroid drugs can often be used in conjunction with other treatments such as radioactive iodine therapy or surgery.

Medication may continue for 12-18 months to make sure that the condition does not come back.

Beta blockers

Beta blockers are traditionally prescribed to deal with heart problems and hypertension. They work by blocking the effects of adrenaline and other similar compounds. They can help reduce symptoms in Grave’s disease.

Graves’ disease patients may be more sensitive to adrenaline, this can result in symptoms such as sweating, shaking, increased heart rate, and anxiety. Beta blockers can help alleviate these symptoms, but do not address Graves’ disease itself.

Beta blockers are often used alongside other treatments, meaning there is a risk that side-effects can occur due to the different drugs interacting with one another.


Because other treatments for Graves’ have steadily improved, surgery is now less common. However, it is still used if other treatments are unsuccessful.

Thyroidectomy is the removal of all or part of the thyroid gland – how much depends on the severity of the symptoms.

The biggest advantage of surgery is that it is arguably the fastest, most consistent, and most permanent way to restore normal thyroid hormone levels.

After surgery, patients may experience neck pain and a hoarse or weak voice, however, these should just be temporary, due to the breathing tube that is inserted into the windpipe during surgery.

A scar will be present after surgery, the severity of it will depend on how much of the thyroid is removed.

If only part of the thyroid is removed, the remaining portion is able to take over its functions.

If the whole thyroid is removed, the body will be unable to produce enough thyroid hormones, a condition known as hypothyroidism. To treat this, a doctor will prescribe hormone pills, which replace the effect of the hormone.

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