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Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid. The thyroid is a small gland in the front of the neck. It makes hormones called T3 and T4 that regulate how the body uses energy. Thyroid hormone levels are controlled by the pituitary, which is a pea-sized gland in the brain. It makes thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which triggers the thyroid to make thyroid hormone.
With Graves' disease, the immune system makes antibodies that act like TSH, causing the thyroid to make more thyroid hormone than your body needs. This is called an overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism. An overactive thyroid causes every function of the body to speed up, such as heart rate and the rate your body turns food into energy. Graves' disease is one cause of overactive thyroid. It is closely related to Hashimoto's disease, another autoimmune disease affecting the thyroid.
Most people with Graves' disease have symptoms of an overactive thyroid, such as:
Unlike other causes of an overactive thyroid, Graves' disease also can cause:
Symptoms of Graves' disease can occur slowly or very suddenly and are sometimes confused with other health problems. Some people with Graves' disease do not have any symptoms.
Both men and women can get Graves' disease. But it affects women 10 times more often than men. Graves' disease occurs in people of all ages, but most often starts in the 20s and 30s. People who get Graves' disease often have family members who have thyroid or other autoimmune diseases. People who get Graves' disease sometimes have other autoimmune diseases, such as:
Many factors are thought to play a role in getting Graves' disease. These might include:
Most people with Graves' disease have symptoms that are bothersome. If you have symptoms of Graves' disease, your doctor will do an exam and order one or more tests. Tests used to help find out if you have Graves' disease include:
Graves'disease can be hard to diagnose during pregnancy because it has many of the same symptoms as normal pregnancy, like fatigue and heat intolerance. Also, some lab tests can be harder to interpret. Plus, doctors cannot use RAIU during pregnancy to rule out other causes.
There are 3 main treatments for Graves' disease:
Besides one of these 3 treatments, your doctor might also suggest you take a type of drug called a beta-blocker. Beta-blockers do not affect how much thyroid hormone is made. Rather, they block the action of thyroid hormone on your body. This slows down your heart rate and reduces symptoms such as shaking and nervousness. Beta-blockers work quickly and can help you feel better while waiting for the main treatment to take effect.
The treatment that is best for you will depend on many factors. Antithyroid drugs and RAI — or a mix of both — often are preferred. During and after treatment, your doctor will want to monitor your thyroid hormone levels. Ask how often you need to be seen for follow-up visits.
Without treatment, Graves' disease can lead to heart problems, weak and brittle bones, and even death. “Thyroid storm” is a very rare, life-threatening condition that can occur if overactive thyroid is not treated. An acute stress, such as trauma, surgery, or infection, usually triggers it to occur. In pregnant women, untreated disease can threaten the mother and unborn baby's health.
Normal hormone changes during pregnancy cause thyroid hormone levels to increase. The thyroid also may enlarge slightly in healthy women during pregnancy, but not enough to be felt. These changes do not affect the pregnancy or unborn baby. Yet, untreated thyroid problems can threaten pregnancy and the growing baby. Symptoms of normal pregnancy, like fatigue and feeling hot, can make it easy to overlook thyroid problems in pregnancy. So if you have symptoms of overactive thyroid or notice a goiter, make sure to tell your doctor.
Experts have not reached agreement on whether all pregnant women should be routinely screened for thyroid problems. Graves' disease rarely begins during pregnancy. Most women diagnosed with Graves' disease during pregnancy had symptoms of an overactive thyroid before getting pregnant.
Women who have been treated for Graves' disease can become pregnant. But make sure your pregnancy is planned. Graves' disease must be well-controlled before you get pregnant. This is because untreated or poorly treated Graves' disease can lead to problems for the mother, such as:
Untreated or poorly treated Graves' disease also can cause health problems for the baby, such as:
Talk to your doctor about how to prepare for pregnancy or about birth control if you do not want to become pregnant. If you take antithyroid drugs and want to get pregnant, ask your doctor about treatment with radioactive iodine (RAI). Women treated with RAI at least 6 months before pregnancy don't need antithyroid drugs and can avoid exposing the unborn baby. If you have had RAI to treat Graves' disease, you should wait at least 6 months before getting pregnant. Your doctor also will need to watch your baby for thyroid-related problems that can occur later in the pregnancy.
During pregnancy, you will need to see both your OB/GYN and an endocrinologist (en-doh-krih-NOL-uh-jist), a doctor who treats people with hormone problems. If you have had radioactive iodine (RAI) or surgery to treat Graves' disease in the past and become pregnant, tell your doctor. Your baby will need to be watched for thyroid-related problems that can occur later in the pregnancy. It is best to plan pregnancy so that Graves' disease is treated prior to conception.
Pregnancy may cause changes in hormones that affect the thyroid, and thyroid problems can affect a growing baby. For some women with Graves' disease, symptoms worsen in the first trimester, and then improve for the rest of the pregnancy. Symptoms often worsen again after delivery. For these reasons, the treatment needs of pregnant women with Graves' disease often change, and an experienced doctor is needed to manage your treatment during and after pregnancy.
Your doctor will check your thyroid hormone levels regularly. If antithyroid medicine is needed, PTU is usually prescribed in the first trimester, and MMI for the rest of the pregnancy. Thyroid surgery is rarely an option for pregnant women. And pregnant women cannot take RAI. Beta-blockers are sometimes prescribed for short-term use during the first few weeks of pregnancy to relieve symptoms.
Many women who take antithyroid medicine choose to breastfeed. Only low amounts of these drugs cross into breast milk. Your doctor can help you weigh the benefits of breastfeeding with the possible risk of these drugs. This will help you decide what is best for you and your baby.
For more information about Graves' disease, call womenshealth.gov at 800-994-9662 (TDD: 888-220-5446) or contact the following organizations:
Graves' disease fact sheet was reviewed by:
David S. Cooper, M.D.
Professor of Medicine
The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Content last updated July 16, 2012.
Resources last updated May 18, 2010.