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Image: “Thyroxine-2D-skeletal” by Benjah-bmm27. License: Public Domain

Overview of Hyperthyroidism in Children

Hyperthyroidism can be defined as the overactivity of the thyroid gland, which is associated with the increased release and/or production of thyroid hormones and accelerated peripheral metabolism.

Thyrotoxicosis is a specific disorder of thyroid hormone overactivity that is characterized by an increased amount of unbound thyroid hormones, which can be endogenous or exogenous. Most hyperthyroidism cases in children are caused by Graves’ disease, but the condition is rare.

Epidemiology of Hyperthyroidism in Children

The estimated prevalence of hyperthyroidism in children is around 1 in 10,000 in the United States’ pediatric population. Almost all cases of hyperthyroidism in children are caused by Graves disease; hence, this discussion will focus on etiology. Approximately 5 % of all Graves’ disease cases occur in children.

Causes of Graves’ disease

The concordance in monozygotic twins for Graves’ disease is around 50 %. Because of this, most scholars agree that Graves’ disease is a condition that is caused by a complex interplay between genetic predisposition and unknown environmental exposures.

Increase of Graves’ disease

The incidence of Graves’ disease is increased in certain subpopulations of children. Children with autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes mellitus type 1, Addison disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, and rheumatoid arthritis, are at an increased risk of developing hyperthyroidism due to Graves’ disease. The only chromosomal abnormality known to increase the risk of Graves’ disease is trisomy 21.

Clinical hyperthyroidism

The estimated incidence of clinical hyperthyroidism in the United States is around 0.44 per 1000 in children and 0.59 per 1000 in adolescents. According to some epidemiological studies of hyperthyroidism, a peak in incidence is observed in children aged between 10–15 years. Graves’ disease is more common in girls than in boys.

The prognosis of Graves’ disease in children is excellent, with a very low risk of congestive heart failure. However, neonatal Graves’ disease has a worse prognosis.

Hypothyroidism after treatment with radioiodine or surgical sub-thyroidectomy is the most common complication seen in children with Graves’ disease.

Etiology of Hyperthyroidism in Children

The most common etiology of hyperthyroidism in children is Graves’ disease. Other less common causes of hyperthyroidism in children include:

  • toxic adenoma
  • subacute viral thyroiditis
  • chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis
  • bacterial thyroiditis.

The exact etiology of Graves’ disease is unknown, but an autoimmune pathology is most likely.
Other, rarer causes of hyperthyroidism in children include pituitary adenoma and the exogenous use of thyroid hormone. Patients with a previous history of hypothyroidism who are being treated with thyroid hormone replacement therapy and adolescents are the most likely to develop hyperthyroidism due to exogenous thyroid hormone intake.

Graves’ disease is characterized by the over-stimulation of the thyroid gland by thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulins (TSIs). The exact trigger for the formation of TSIs is unknown, but environmental exposures, along with genetic predisposition, are the most likely mechanisms.

Pathophysiology of Hyperthyroidism in Children

Hyperthyroidism symptoms are the consequence of the activation of transcription of certain cellular proteins that increase the basal metabolic rate. This is associated with a response that is like the one caused by catecholamines excess, and adrenergic receptors blockage is known to improve the symptoms of such patients.

The increased production and release of the thyroid hormones can be caused by any of the previously mentioned etiologies, and the endpoint and pathophysiology are the same regardless of the etiology.

Clinical Presentation of Hyperthyroidism in Children

The diagnosis of hyperthyroidism in children is difficult to make for several reasons.



Image: “Hyperaldosteronism Symptoms” by Madhero88. License: CC BY 3.0

Firstly, the typical symptoms of hyperthyroidism are usually attributed to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder instead of hyperthyroidism. Secondly, the severity of the symptoms is usually less in children compared to adults. Finally, the onset of the symptoms in children is usually insidious and not acute.

The most common symptom of hyperthyroidism in children is weight loss despite an increased appetite. Sweating, hyperactivity, and heat intolerance are also common symptoms of hyperthyroidism in children. Diarrhea and fatigue are less common in children with hyperthyroidism compared to adults. Palpitations are reported in one-third of the cases.

Adolescent females with hyperthyroidism might complain of menstrual irregularities or amenorrhea. Hair loss may also occur in patients with Graves’ disease.

Graves’ ophthalmopathy is rarely severe in children, but eye symptoms such as pain on movement or diplopia are common. Patients with Graves’ ophthalmopathy might have worsening of their ophthalmopathy even after the correction of the hyperthyroidism state.


Image: “Proptosis and lid retraction caused by Graves’ Disease” by Jonathan Trobe, M.D. License: CC BY 3.0

Physical examination

Upon physical examination of the neck in children with hyperthyroidism, goiter is present in almost all cases. Auscultation of the thyroid gland might reveal an audible bruit. Such a bruit is present in up to half of hyperthyroidism cases.

Tachycardia and wide pulse pressure are present in most patients with hyperthyroidism, including children. Signs suggestive of congestive heart failure are rarely seen in children. Systemic hypertension might be seen in some children with Graves’ disease.

Neurological examination

Neurological examination of the child might show tremors, muscle fasciculations, proximal muscle weakness, and exaggerated deep tendon reflexes.

Diagnostic Workup for Hyperthyroidism in Children

Thyroid function tests

Thyroid function tests include the measurements of T4, T3, T3 resin uptake and thyroid-stimulating hormone levels. Patients with hyperthyroidism due to Graves’ disease have elevated T4, T3, and T3 resin uptake with almost undetectable levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone.

When measuring T4 levels, it is important to measure total T4 and free T4 hormone. It is important to differentiate between patients with true hyperthyroidism and those with elevated levels of total T4 but normal free T4 levels.

Total T4 Free T4 TSH Other Labs
Primary Thyroid autoantibody test
Secondary ⇓⇔
Sick euthyroid syndrome ⇓⇔ Low T3

High reverse T3TBG Deficiency⇓⇔⇔Decreased TBG levels

Diagnosis of Graves’ disease

The diagnosis of Graves’ disease is based on the findings obtained from the physical examination and thyroid function tests. The measurement of TSIs levels is rarely needed but is available for the clinical practice. An elevated TSI level in a hyperthyroid patient has a sensitivity of 95 % and a specificity of 96 % for Graves’ disease.

Patients with chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis might have hyperthyroidism in the acute stage. During the hyperthyroid stage, elevated levels of antithyroglobulin and anti-thyroid peroxidase antibodies are seen. TSI levels are usually normal.

A complete blood count is indicated in all patients with Graves’ disease to get a baseline. Anti-thyroid therapy is known to cause agranulocytosis in a few patients, and it is important to differentiate between mild leukopenia induced by Graves’ disease and agranulocytosis induced by anti-thyroid therapy.

Nuclear imaging is rarely performed in children with Graves’ disease because the condition can be diagnosed clinically and biochemically.


Image: “Serie Radiojodtherapie Basedow” by Drahreg01. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Treatment of Hyperthyroidism in Children

The treatment options for hyperthyroidism in children include antithyroid medication, radioiodine ablation, and thyroidectomy. Symptomatic treatment of hyperthyroidism is also indicated in severe cases in children. Propranolol is the beta-blocker of choice for the symptomatic treatment of hyperthyroidism in children.

Medication treatment

The treatment of choice for hyperthyroidism in children is antithyroid medication.

Methimazole is the only antithyroid medication available in the United States. The typical dose of methimazole in children is around 0.4–0.7 mg/kg/day. Methimazole is usually given once daily whereas PTU is given three times a day. PTU is no longer recommended in the management of hyperthyroidism in the United States due to its adverse side effects.

Radioactive iodine ablation therapy

Radioactive iodine ablation of the thyroid gland in children is not recommended; however, it should be noted that the risk of malignancy is not increased after radioactive iodine ablation therapy. Children with severe hyperthyroidism who do not respond to antithyroid medication and who are not good surgical candidates might benefit from this treatment option. Radioactive iodine ablation therapy is the treatment of choice for Graves’ disease in adults.

Surgical Treatment

Children with Graves’ disease who do not respond to antithyroid medication should undergo surgical subtotal removal of the thyroid gland. Most children will end up with hypothyroidism, which can be treated easily with lifelong T4 replacement therapy.

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