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What Is Graves' Disease Exactly?

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Photo: Paras Griffin / Contributor / Getty Images

On Wednesday, talk show host Wendy Williams announced she'd be taking several weeks off from filming her show because, well, that's what the doctor ordered. The TV personality revealed that she has been diagnosed with Graves' disease and her doctor prescribed three weeks of rest. Wondering what exactly is Graves' disease and just how serious it is? Here's what you need to know about this sneaky thyroid-related condition.

What is Graves' disease?

Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the hormones produced by the thyroid glands. The condition causes excess production of those hormones, leading to an overactive thyroid, says Barrie Weinstein, M.D., assistant professor of endocrinology, diabetes, and bone disease at the Icahn School of Medicine. "This can make your body feel like it's in overdrive. You might have increased anxiety, trouble sleeping, unintentional weight loss, tremors, exhaustion, shortness of breath, and a fast heart rate or irregular heartbeat." (Wait. Could kale actually cause hypothyroidism?)

Risk Factors for Graves' Disease

While Graves' disease can affect anyone, it's more common in women and in people under 40. People with a family history of the disease—or who already have another autoimmune disorder—are at an increased risk, says Dr. Weinstein, as well as smokers and women who recently gave birth. What's more, stress can trigger the onset of Graves'.

"Other things that might be associated specifically with Graves' are an enlarged thyroid gland, and a specific eye disease called Graves' ophthalmopathy," says Dr. Weinstein. This eye condition can cause irritation or a "gritty" feeling in your eyes, redness, very dry eyes, very teary eyes, light sensitivity, double vision, and a slight bulging of the eyes. Williams may have been suffering from the latter, as during her announcement, she says it was actually viewers who first noticed that her eyes were twitching on the show.

Diagnosing Graves' Disease

Diagnosing the condition is actually a simple process—all it takes is a blood test. Crucially, though, if Graves' disease is left undiagnosed it can become quite a serious health concern. A timely diagnosis is particularly important for people with pre-existing heart conditions or other underlying illnesses that an increased heart rate could affect.

As with any health concern, big or small, the best thing you can do is listen to your body and watch for warning signs. "People present with a wide range of symptoms" resulting from Graves' disease, says Dr. Weinstein. So, if something feels off, head to your doctor for that simple blood test. (Related: The 20 Most Important Hormones for Your Health)

Treatment for Graves' Disease

Once you have a diagnosis, the first plan of attack usually involves taking a beta blocker to slow down or regulate your heartbeat if that's a symptom you're experiencing, says Dr. Weinstein.

With your heart rate stabilized, there are three options to treat the condition itself. The first is an antithyroid medication, which stops the thyroid from overproducing hormones, and most people will take this for about 18 months, says Dr. Weinstein. The second option, which is the most common, is radioactive iodine therapy. Patients swallow a small dose of radioactive iodine I-131, which is absorbed into the bloodstream. It then concentrates near the thyroid gland and starts destroying its cells, helping to thwart the overproduction of hormones. (Related: How Exercise Hormones Play a Role In Your Diet and Fitness)

Finally, a more permanent treatment solution is surgical removal of the thyroid. This is "not your first method of treatment," says Dr. Weinstein, but it's an option for people who want an immediate cure without waiting for the medication to work. (It's also a popular choice for women who want to get pregnant in the immediate future, as iodine therapy comes with birth-defect risks for up to 6 months after treatment.) Thyroid removal surgery is generally safe, but depending on whether you had part or all of your thyroid removed, you may need to take a synthetic thyroid pill every day to help your body produce those hormones.

The outcome of treatment will vary from patient to patient, says Dr. Weinstein. Some may be cured entirely, and others can enter remission, but have the condition return at some point. What's more, for some patients, treatment for Graves' disease can actually cause the opposite problem—and underactive thyroid—which can be treated with a medication you take every day for the rest of your life (just like the medication you'd take after thyroid removal).

If this all sounds too grim, Dr. Weinstein says that while it's true that Graves' disease can affect your everyday life, the majority of patients she encounters don't need to take an extensive reprieve or have their life come to a halt to seek intensive treatment.

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