Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease that damages the thyroid gland. It’s the most common cause of hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland) affecting more women than men. Symptoms of the disease may include: bulging eyes reddened skin and weight loss. Hyperthyroidism due to Graves’ disease is treatable. But if left untreated, it can cause osteoporosis, heart problems, and problems getting pregnant and during pregnancy.
What Causes Graves’ Disease?
A process in the body’s immune system, which normally protects the body from infection, can trigger Graves’ Disease. In the condition, the body makes an antibody that attacks the cells of the thyroid gland.
Your thyroid is a small gland at the base of your neck. Your thyroid gland makes hormones that control many activities in your body, including how fast your heart beats and how fast you burn calories.
In a person with Graves’ disease, the immune system makes antibodies that cause the thyroid to make more thyroid hormone than the body needs. Graves’ disease most often leads to hyperthyroidism, which causes your metabolism to speed up. When people’s metabolism goes into high gear, they often experience a pounding heart, sweating, trembling, and weight loss (see other symptoms below).
What are the Symptoms?
- Bulging eyes (only in Graves’ disease). Bulging eyes may also make your eyes ache and feel dry and irritated.
- Thickening and reddening of the skin, especially on the shins and upper feet (only in Graves’ disease)
Other symptoms are common with the general symptoms of hyperthyroidism:
- Irritability or nervousness
- Tiredness or muscle weakness
- Heat sensitivity
- Trouble sleeping
- Shaky hands
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat
- Weight loss without dieting
- Goiter, which is an enlarged thyroid that can cause the neck to look swollen
Women with the disease often have irregular menstrual periods. If your periods are irregular, you may not ovulate each month, which can make it difficult to get pregnant.
Who is at Risk for the disease?
As mentioned before, Graves’ disease is more common in women than in men. Women are most often affected between the ages of 30 and 60. Your risk is higher if you:
- Have a family history.
- Have another autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, or lupus.
- Are under stress.
- Recently had a baby. Pregnancy affects the thyroid gland. The risk of developing the disease is seven times higher in the year after giving birth.
- Have a history of infection.
What are the Treatment Options are Available?
Treatments for Graves’ disease lower the amount of thyroid hormone in your body or block the action of thyroid hormone. There are three main treatments:
- Antithyroid medicine. The Food and Drug Administration has approved two medicines for Graves’ disease: methimazole, or MMI; and propylthiouracil, or PTU. These medicines keep the thyroid gland from making too much thyroid hormone.
- Radioactive iodine (RAI). RAI is a type of iodine that damages the thyroid gland by giving it radiation. The RAI destroys thyroid cells so that your thyroid gland cannot make as much thyroid hormone.
- Surgery to remove all or most of the thyroid.
Your doctor may also suggest you take a medicine called a beta-blocker. Beta-blockers block some of the effects of excess thyroid hormone on your body. They slow down your heart rate and reduce symptoms such as shaking and nervousness. Beta-blockers work quickly and can help you feel better while you wait for additional treatment to start working.
If you’ve experienced any of the symptoms of Graves’ disease (bulging eyes and reddening of the skin) or hyperthyroidism, contact Creekside Center for Women to set up an appointment with one of our doctors.