Wendy Williams and Graves' Disease: What You Need to Know
Over the past two years Wendy Williams has had to take a hiatus from her popular talk show due to a reported Graves’ disease relapse — here’s what to look for to avoid your own relapse
While she likely doesn’t want the honor, popular talk show host Wendy Williams has become the newest public face of Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism. Williams joins other celebrities, such singer Sia, rapper/record producer Missy Elliot, and singer Leona Lewis, who have already spoken out publicly about their battles with Graves’ disease.
Graves’ is an autoimmune disease that causes the thyroid gland to become overactive. Symptoms can include weight loss, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, hair loss, and eye- and heart-related problems.
Williams, 54, first suffered from the autoimmune thyroid condition 20 years ago in her 30s. She had radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment, and has reported that she has been taking thyroid hormone replacement medication since that time.
In late 2018, however, Williams announced her second lengthy hiatus from her show in two years, both of which she attributes to complications from relapses of her thyroid condition.
Let’s look at what we know about Williams’ thyroid history.
Wendy Williams’ first relapse
On Oct. 31, 2017, Williams fainted on-air during a taping of her show. She later said that fainting was a result of feeling "overheated."
Being overheated can be a symptom of hyperthyroidism. Several months later, in February of 2018, Williams announced that she would be taking a three-week break from hosting her show in order to deal with treatment for a relapse of Graves’ disease.
On her Feb. 21, 2018 show — excerpted in a video message on Twitter – Williams told her viewers:
"My thyroid has been totally catawampus. And that the eye thing you all have been seeing. You caught it before I did ...” Williams was referring to the bulging eyeballs and prominent stare — known as proptosis — a common eye-related symptoms of Graves’ disease.
In the video message, Williams also described trouble sleeping, difficulty swallowing, thinning hair, rapid heartbeat, and heat intolerance — all common symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
After her hiatus, an apparently recovered Williams resumed taping her show. During her show on March 19, 2018, Williams told television host and physician Dr. Mehmet Oz: “For 19 years, Dr. Oz, everything’s been under control. I drank the radioactive iodine, which was supposed to have taken out the actual thyroid function. I’d replace it every day with a pill. A pill a day for 19 years. Everything was fine, until it wasn’t.”
Wendy Williams’ second relapse
Williams’ health was not in the news again until October of 2018, when she fractured her shoulder. She took some time off to recover and was due to return to taping in early 2019.
Then, on Dec. 20, 2018, Williams revealed on Instagram that she had been diagnosed with a recurrence of Graves’ disease. According to Williams: "... everyone is aware at this point about my thyroid condition (don’t cry for me Argentina). For all my fellow thyroid sufferers, you know what the deal is. And for those that don’t: I encourage you to please read up ...”
View this post on Instagram
To My Wendy Watchers, I sincerely apologize if you feel that today's show was less than stellar. I’m on your TV screens every day wanting to spread laughter, entertainment and cheer. As I reported earlier in the week, I have a hairline fracture on my upper arm, which hurts like hell. I’ve never broken a bone or experienced a fracture in my life. In the key place where the fracture is, and trying to scurry around and do too much, I am now paying the price. I've never taken a pain medication in my life (except when I got snatched over 20 years ago) until this week. I did that to power through and try to deliver a great show for you, against the better judgement of the many people around me who genuinely care for my well-being. I really do ride or die for my craft and give 200%. Not to mention everyone is aware at this point about my thyroid condition (don’t cry for me Argentina). For all my fellow thyroid sufferers, you know what the deal is. And for those that don’t: I encourage you to please read up. Needless to say, whatever today's performance was with the legendary The Lox, who said such nice things, I have no regrets and I appreciate everyone’s genuine concern for my wellness and care. I promise you a better Wendy in 2019. I will get some much needed rest and healing over these next couple of weeks. (Yes I am definitely juicing over the next couple of weeks). Sorry again. I love you all. Happy Holidays!
Around that time, her family also issued a statement that said: “Wendy has experienced complications regarding her Graves’ disease that will require treatment. Wendy will be under the strict supervision of her physicians, and as part of her care, there will be significant time spent in the hospital.”
No further details were revealed about the nature of the complications Williams was experiencing, or the recommended treatment she would pursue. At that time, Williams’ date to return to her show was moved back again. As of early February of 2019, guest hosts were still filling in for Williams, and no date for her return to the show has been announced.
What triggers a hyperthyroidism relapse?
It appears then, that Williams has had two relapses of Graves’ disease in the past year. Relapses like this are not uncommon. Some of the more common causes include:
- Hormonal shifts: Relapses are more common during periods of hormonal change, such as pregnancy, post-partum, perimenopause, and menopause. In Williams’ case, she has said that she was in perimenopause around the time of her first relapse.
- Overmedication: Taking too much thyroid hormone medication can result in overmedication and hyperthyroidism symptoms. After her first relapse, Williams announced that she had skipped several scheduled appointments with her endocrinologist due to a heavy workload. It’s possible that she had become overmedicated over time, especially if she had lost weight and needed her dosage dropped.
- Stress: Experts aren’t sure exactly why, but stress is a known factor that can trigger Graves’ disease or a Graves’ relapse, along with other autoimmune diseases. For Williams, it’s possible that stressors may have reached a tipping point.
Hospitalization for hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease?
One question many people have, however, is “what types of complications from hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease could require hospitalization?
In general, hospitalization for hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease is not common. There are, however, acute situations where emergency treatment or hospitalization may be required. These include:
- Thyroid storm, an uncontrollable rise in blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature that can be fatal if untreated.
- Thyroid-triggered heart complications, such as atrial fibrillation.
There are no reports confirming thyroid storm or heart-related complications for Williams. It is also possible that hospitalization may have been needed for the actual treatment of the hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease itself.
Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism are treated in three ways: radioactive iodine ablation (RAI), antithyroid drugs, and surgery to remove the thyroid gland, known as thyroidectomy. Since Williams had a relapse of Graves’/hyperthyroidism two decades after her initial treatment, it’s possible that her doctors recommended another RAI to treat her recurrence. After RAI, some patients are permitted to remain in the hospital for several days, to protect their family members and the public from any radioactive exposure. This is not common in the United States, however.
Another possibility is that after RAI and a relapse, her doctors may have recommended a thyroidectomy. In most cases, several days of hospitalization is typical after thyroid surgery.
We wish Williams the best in her thyroid journey as she pursues treatment to manage her Graves’ disease, hyperthyroidism, and complications. Williams always seems to approach her health challenges with humor and strength, and it’s clear that after these relapses, she now views her health as a high priority. As she told PEOPLE magazine: “I love doing the show, but I love me more. So I’m going to take care of me, so I can be there for them.”
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