Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid gland. The gland produces too much thyroid hormone, a condition known as hyperthyroidism. Thyroid hormones regulate body temperature, heart rate and metabolism. An overactive thyroid causes problems with organs like the heart, as well as bones and muscles. Treatments can help.
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks healthy tissue in your thyroid gland for unknown reasons. It’s the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, a condition in which your thyroid gland makes too much thyroid hormone.
Your thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped endocrine gland located at the front of your neck under your skin. Your thyroid’s main job is to regulate the speed of your metabolism (metabolic rate), which is the process of how your body transforms the food you consume into energy, by releasing certain hormones.
The condition gets its name from Robert Graves, an Irish doctor who first described the condition in the 1800s.
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Graves’ disease affects more people assigned female at birth than people assigned male at birth. It typically occurs in people between the ages of 30 and 50, but it can affect children and older adults.
You’re also more likely to get Graves’ disease if you have another autoimmune disease, such as:
Even though Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, accounting for 60% to 80% of hyperthyroidism cases, it’s a relatively rare condition. Approximately 1.2% of people in the United States have hyperthyroidism.
Thyroid hormone affects several parts of your body and bodily functions. Because of this, Graves’ disease/hyperthyroidism (excess thyroid hormone) can affect many parts of your body, including your:
For example, excess thyroid hormone can cause rapid heartbeat and lead to more serious heart conditions and cause osteoporosis (weakened bones).
Because Graves’ disease affects several aspects of your health, it’s important to seek medical treatment for it.
The onset of symptoms of Graves’ disease is usually gradual, often taking several weeks or months to develop.
Graves’ disease causes hyperthyroidism, which speeds up certain body functions. There are many symptoms of hyperthyroidism. You may experience some of these symptoms and not others, or many of them at the same time.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism can include:
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, see your healthcare provider.
Graves’ disease can also cause eye disease symptoms, including:
This is called Graves’ ophthalmopathy or orbitopathy or thyroid eye disease. Only about a third of people with Graves’ disease develop this condition. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to see your eye doctor (optometrist or ophthalmologist).
Rarely, people with Graves’ disease develop a lumpy, reddish thickening of the skin on their shins known as pretibial myxedema (called Graves’ dermopathy). It’s usually painless and mild, but it can be painful for some people.
Researchers don’t know what causes autoimmune diseases like Graves’ disease. Something triggers your immune system to overproduce an antibody called thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulin (TSI). TSI attaches to healthy thyroid cells, causing your thyroid to overproduce thyroid hormones.
The trigger of the attack may be a combination of having a genetic predisposition and environmental factors, such as:
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history, including your family history of thyroid disease, and perform a physical exam. They may also order the following tests to confirm a Graves’ disease diagnosis:
Graves’ disease is a lifelong (chronic) condition. However, treatments can keep your thyroid hormone levels in check. Medical care may even make the disease temporarily go away (remission).
Treatments for Graves’ disease include:
Antithyroid medication, radioiodine therapy and surgery all have benefits and risks, and there’s no consensus in the medical community on which treatment is the best option. It’s important to discuss all three options in detail with your provider to make the best choice for you.
Experts still aren’t certain what causes autoimmune diseases like Graves’ disease. Currently, there’s no known way to prevent the condition.
If Graves’ disease is properly treated, the prognosis (outlook) is generally good.
Treatment for Graves’ disease is lifelong. People who receive definitive treatment for Graves’ disease (radioactive iodine or thyroidectomy) will eventually develop hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), which requires lifelong medication. People who take antithyroid drugs to treat Graves’ disease usually have to take them throughout their life.
Untreated or poorly managed Graves’ disease increases your risk for these complications:
Thyroid hormones play a key role in the development of a fetus's brain and nervous system. Untreated hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease during pregnancy can be harmful to you and the fetus.
Your healthcare provider may test your hormone levels monthly to ensure they stay within a safe range. Too much thyroid hormone during pregnancy can increase the risk of:
Since Graves’ disease is a chronic condition, you’ll need to see your healthcare provider regularly throughout your life to make sure your thyroid levels are in check and your treatment plan is working. If you develop any new symptoms, talk to your provider.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of thyroid storm, a rare complication of Graves’ disease, call 911 or get to the nearest emergency room (ER) as soon as possible. Thyroid storm is life-threatening.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Getting a new diagnosis can be stressful. The good news is that Graves’ disease is a manageable and treatable condition. If you’re experiencing symptoms of Graves’ disease or have certain risk factors, such as a family history of thyroid disease, be sure to contact your healthcare provider. They can give you some simple tests to see if your thyroid is making too much thyroid hormone.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/06/2022.
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