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Hyperthyroidism (Graves' Disease) in Children and Newborns

What is hyperthyroidism?

Hyperthyroidism means overactivity of the thyroid gland, resulting in too much thyroid hormone in the bloodstream.

Illustration of the thyroid glad and its location showing the voicebox, parathyroid glands, artery, vein, windpipe and laryngeal nerve
Thyroid Gland - Click to Enlarge

The oversecretion of thyroid hormones leads to overactivity of the body's metabolism. In newborns, the most common cause of an overactive thyroid is called neonatal Graves' disease, which can be life threatening. However, hyperthyroidism occurs more often in children and adolescents than in newborns.

What causes hyperthyroidism?

Newborn hyperthyroidism results when the mother has or has had Graves' disease herself. Graves' disease in adults is an autoimmune disorder characterized by the production of antibodies that stimulate the thyroid gland. When a pregnant woman has these antibodies, they can cross the placenta and affect the fetus' thyroid gland. Graves' disease in pregnant woman can result in stillbirth, miscarriage, or premature birth.

What are the symptoms of hyperthyroidism?

The following are the most common symptoms of hyperthyroidism in a newborn. However, each baby may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

 

  • Low birth weight

  • Small or abnormally shaped head

  • Poor weight gain (failure to thrive)

  • Enlarged liver and spleen

  • Goiter

  • Fast heartbeat (which can lead to heart failure)

  • High blood pressure

  • Nervousness

  • Irritability

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Bulging eyes

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Difficulty breathing due to enlarged thyroid gland (goiter) pressing on the windpipe

Prolonged exposure to high levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (characteristic of hyperthyroidism) can pose serious health problems to a child, including the following:

  • Premature closing of bones in the skull (fontanelles)

  • Intellectual disability

  • Hyperactivity

  • Rapid growth that slows and ultimately stops at short stature

The symptoms of hyperthyroidism may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

How is hyperthyroidism diagnosed?

If not diagnosed shortly after birth, hyperthyroidism in the newborn can be fatal. In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, diagnostic procedures for hyperthyroidism may include measurement of thyroid hormone in the bloodstream.

How is hyperthyroidism treated?

With prompt treatment, babies usually recover completely within a few weeks. However, hyperthyroidism may recur during the first 6 months to 1 year of life. The goal of treatment is to restore the thyroid gland to normal function, producing normal levels of thyroid hormone.

Treatment may include:

  • Medication that blocks the production of thyroid hormones and treats rapid heart rate

  • Treatment for heart failure

Last Reviewed Date: 08/25/2014
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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