Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition that causes the thyroid to overproduce thyroid hormones. Hyperthyroidism is the state of having an overactive thyroid that produces too many thyroid hormones.

In this article, we look at what hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease are, as well as the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of both.

We also explain the outlook of the conditions, prevention, and when to contact a doctor.

A woman with Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism sitting on a chair.Share on Pinterest
Ivan Ozerov/Stocksy

In autoimmune conditions, such as Graves’ disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells.

The cause of Graves’ disease is the immune system attacking thyroid cells. This results in an overproduction of thyroid hormones, leading to hyperthyroidism.

Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism are not exactly the same. Graves’ disease is one of several potential causes of hyperthyroidism.


Hyperthyroidism, which people also refer to as an overactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid gland produces more thyroid hormone than the body needs. Thyroid hormones control how the body uses energy.

Graves’ disease

In a person with Graves’ disease, the immune system produces an antibody called thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulin (TSI). This antibody acts similarly to thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which the pituitary gland at the base of the brain produces.

TSH communicates with the thyroid and tells it how much thyroid hormone to produce. In Graves’ disease, TSI causes the thyroid to overproduce thyroid hormone, which can affect how the body uses energy.

Thyroid hormones are vital to the functioning of the body. They maintain brain and bone development, as well as the functioning of the digestive system, heart, and muscles.

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism can include:

Symptoms of Graves’ disease can include all the symptoms of hyperthyroidism, as well as problems with the eyes and skin.

Eye problems include:

Skin problems include a condition called Graves’ dermopathy, or pretibial myxedema. This condition causes the skin to thicken and become rough. The condition is not painful. It typically affects the shins and tops of the feet.

Graves’ disease is only one potential cause of hyperthyroidism. Other causes include:

  • Thyroiditis: An inflamed thyroid, which may cause thyroid hormone to seep out of the thyroid.
  • Thyroid nodules: Noncancerous growths on the thyroid, called thyroid nodules, can cause an overproduction of thyroid hormone.
  • Excess of thyroid medication: In some cases, a person may take too much medication to treat hypothyroidism, which is an underactive thyroid. This may lead to an overactive thyroid.
  • Excess of iodine: Too much iodine may cause the thyroid to overproduce thyroid hormone. This can happen if someone takes iodine contrast for CT scans or iodine-containing medication, such as amiodarone.

To diagnose Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism, a doctor may:

  • perform a physical exam
  • take a medical history
  • order blood tests, which can check for TSI and measure thyroid hormone levels
  • perform a thyroid ultrasound and a Doppler ultrasound, in which a doctor uses equipment to emit and receive ultrasound waves to form images of the thyroid
  • perform a radioactive iodine uptake test, which measures how much iodine the thyroid is taking from the blood to make thyroid hormones

TSH levels

A doctor may also perform thyroid tests to check for hyperthyroidism. These include:

  • TSH test: The pituitary gland produces this hormone to tell the thyroid how much T3 and T4, which are thyroid hormones, to make. Low levels of TSH can indicate hyperthyroidism. This is because the pituitary gland stops releasing TSH into the blood as the body has too many thyroid hormones. High levels of TSH may indicate hypothyroidism.
  • T3 and T4 tests: High levels of these hormones may indicate hyperthyroidism.

Treatment for Graves’ disease involves treating hyperthyroidism.

Treatments include:

  • Medication: A doctor may prescribe antithyroid medication, such as methimazole, which can cause the thyroid to produce less thyroid hormone. They may also prescribe beta-blockers, which cause blood vessels to relax and widen, and stop substances such as adrenaline from affecting nerve cells.
  • Radioiodine therapy: This involves taking radioactive iodine in an oral form as a capsule or liquid. The iodine destroys the thyroid cells responsible for producing thyroid hormones.
  • Surgery: Removal of part of the thyroid can help hormone levels to return to appropriate levels. However, surgery can also lead to hypothyroidism, which may require medication.

For eye problems associated with Graves’ disease, treatment may involve:

  • eye drops
  • corticosteroids or other medication to reduce the body’s immune response
  • radiation therapy, in rare cases, to the tissues and muscles surrounding the eyes
  • surgery to correct vision or eye bulging

A person typically requires ongoing treatment for Graves’ disease unless they have received surgery that has effectively treated their condition.

It is important to note that most treatments for Graves’ disease can lead to hypothyroidism. However, this is typically easy to manage with medication.

Doctors can treat hyperthyroidism effectively in most cases, depending on the cause of the condition.

Ways in which a person may help prevent hyperthyroidism include:

  • quitting smoking, if applicable
  • consuming less alcohol, if applicable
  • avoiding sources of iodine, which can cause harmful side effects in people with Graves’ disease

A person should contact a doctor if they have symptoms of hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease.

Although treatment for the conditions is generally simple, hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease can result in severe complications if left untreated. These include:

This section answers some frequently asked questions about Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism.

Why is hyperthyroidism called Graves’ disease?

Hyperthyroidism is a specific state that describes an overactive thyroid. A person with hyperthyroidism has too many thyroid hormones in their body.

Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism are not exactly the same. Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition that can cause hyperthyroidism by damaging the thyroid.

Researchers named Graves’ disease after an Irish doctor called Robert Graves. Graves described the disease in the 19th century.

Are Graves’ disease and hypothyroidism the same?

No, the two are not the same. Graves’ disease is one of several potential causes of hyperthyroidism.

Hypothyroidism refers to an underactive thyroid, meaning it does not produce enough thyroid hormone. It is the opposite of hyperthyroidism.

Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack the thyroid. This results in hyperthyroidism, or an overproduction of thyroid hormone.

Graves’ disease is one of several causes of hyperthyroidism. The symptoms of both conditions are similar, although a person with Graves’ disease may also experience eye and skin problems.

Untreated hyperthyroidism can lead to severe health problems. Treatment involves medication, radioiodine therapy, surgery, and in some cases of Graves’ disease, eye treatment.

Almost all treatments for Graves’ disease can cause hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid. However, doctors can typically treat this condition more easily.