Lippincott Nursing Pocket Card - October 2023

Thyroid Emergencies


Thyroid Emergencies

Prompt recognition of thyroid emergencies is critical to decrease complications and mortality. Management requires both medical and supportive treatment provided in the critical care setting.


Myxedema Coma

Myxedema coma is a severe, life-threatening emergency that can occur in long-standing, untreated hypothyroidism. Diagnosis is based on clinical manifestations such as altered mental status and hypoventilation associated with slowing of functions of multiple organs, along with laboratory results consistent with hypothyroidism. Treatment should be started promptly given the increased risk of mortality.
Signs and Symptoms of Myxedema Coma

  • Extreme lethargy and diminished mental status
  • Hypothermia
  • Hypotension
  • Hypoventilation
  • Hypercapnia
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Hyponatremia
  • Bradycardia
  • Pericardial effusion
Treatment of Myxedema Coma
  • Thyroid hormone replacement with T4 and/or T3, usually intravenous (IV)
  • Glucocorticoids, until coexisting adrenal insufficiency is ruled out
  • IV fluids for electrolyte replacement
  • Warming blankets
  • Supportive care including mechanical ventilation as required
Nursing Considerations
  • IV hormone replacement should be administered only as IV push through a syringe, rather than through infusion tubing due to high concentrations lost from adherence to polypropylene tubing.
  • Improvements in serum T3 and T4 concentrations may be seen before the normalization of serum TSH concentrations, and serum thyroid function tests should be obtained every one to two days during treatment.
  • Improvements in clinical cardiovascular, renal, pulmonary, and metabolic parameters may take as long as a week.

Thyroid Storm

Thyroid storm refers to elevated thyroid hormone concentrations; thyroid storm is a rare diagnosis and results from untreated hyperthyroidism, abrupt cessation of antithyroid medication, or from thyroid or nonthyroid surgery, trauma, infection, or an acute iodine load. Diagnosis of thyroid storm is made using biochemical laboratory tests confirming thyrotoxicosis in a patient displaying the severe, life-threatening symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Storm
Clinical manifestations include exaggeration of common hyperthyroid symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Diaphoresis
  • Heat intolerance
  • Tremors
  • Palpitations
  • Tachycardia
  • Weight loss
  • Hyperreflexia
  • Warm and moist skin
  • Menstrual abnormalities
  • The following life-threatening signs may also be present:
    • Hyperpyrexia (fever greater than 106 degrees Farhrenheit)
    • Congestive heart failure
    • Vomiting
    • Impaired mental status
Treatment of Thyroid Storm
  • Beta-blocker to control heart rate
  • Methimazole or propylthiouracil to decrease production of thyroid hormone
  • Iodine solution to inhibit thyroid hormone release
  • Glucocorticoids to decrease the conversion of T4 to T3
  • Supportive measures include:
    • IV fluids
    • Oxygen
    • Cooling
    • Treatment of any precipitating causes
  • Plasmapheresis when traditional therapy is unsuccessful
 Nursing Considerations
  • Thyroid storm can occur in patients with or without preexisting hyperthyroidism.
  • Patients with known severe hyperthyroidism who are noncompliant with prescribed antithyroid medications may develop thyroid storm.

Leung, A. M. (September/October 2016). Thyroid emergencies. Journal of Infusion Nursing, 39(5), 281-286.  
Mccaron, K. C. (2009). Deciphering diagnostics: deciphering thyroid function testing. Nursing Made Incredibly Easy!, 7(5), 11-14.

Ross, D. (2023, April 10). Myxedema coma. UpToDate.
Ross, D. (2023, September 29). Thyroid storm. UpToDate.