What is hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease?

Hyperthyroidism means the thyroid gland is overactive, resulting in too much thyroid hormone in the bloodstream. The oversecretion of thyroid hormones causes the body's metabolism to become too active.

Graves’ disease, the most common type of hyperthyroidism, is an autoimmune disorder in which the body produces antibodies that stimulate the thyroid gland. It is most common in older children and adults. However, if a mother has Graves’ disease, her antibodies can cross the placental barrier and lead to a life-threatening condition for her newborn baby.

What are the symptoms of hyperthyroidism?

Symptoms vary widely in newborns with hyperthyroidism, and each baby may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include low birth weight, a small or abnormally shaped head, difficulty gaining weight, an enlarged liver and spleen, goiter, fast heartbeat, high blood pressure, nervousness, difficult breathing due to an enlarged thyroid, and more.

Prolonged exposure to high levels of thyroid-stimulating hormones can pose serious health problems for children and adolescents who develop hyperthyroidism, including premature closing of bones in the skull, intellectual disability, hyperactivity and slowed growth.

How is hyperthyroidism diagnosed? 

On top of a complete medical history and physical examination, doctors may measure the amount of thyroid hormone in the bloodstream or use ultrasound to look for signs of hyperthyroidism.

How is hyperthyroidism treated?

Each patient is different, and the most effective treatment plan involves coordination between the child’s health care team, the child and the child’s family. In many cases, medications are used to block the production of thyroid hormones. There are also medications that can treat the rapid heart rate and heart failure that can sometimes occur as a result of hyperthyroidism and its treatment. Rarely, the patient may need surgery.