Of the 20 million Americans with some form of thyroid disease, 60 percent have no idea they have it. Learn more about the symptoms of thyroid problems.
Hyperthyroidism vs. hypothyroidism
Your thyroid gland, located in the middle of your lower neck and shaped like a butterfly, regulates your body’s metabolism. The thyroid gland affects energy levels and heart rate. You can have an underactive thyroid, which is called hypothyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, called hyperthyroid.
An undiagnosed thyroid problem, whether it’s underactive or overactive, puts people at risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, and infertility. Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism affect both men and women. Women, however, are five times more likely than men to develop a thyroid problem, and one out of every eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.
Symptoms of thyroid problems
Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
Hypothyroidism occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone.
- Extreme fatigue. You feel like you could sleep all day, even if you had a full eight hours of sleep at night.
- Depression. That includes mood swings and anxiety.
- Forgetfulness. You can experience poor concentration.
- Weight gain. Even if you are not overeating, you can have trouble losing weight.
- Cold hands and feet. You may also feel cold all of the time, even when it’s hot outside.
- Dry skin. Your nails can become brittle, and you can have excessive hair loss.
- Hormone imbalances. You may experience irregular periods, intense premenstrual syndrome, infertility, or a low sex drive.
Many symptoms of hypothyroidism are vague enough to be overlooked. If you have symptoms of an underactive thyroid, talk to your doctor.
Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
Most symptoms of an overactive thyroid differ from those of an underactive one. Some are similar. Hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, causes your thyroid gland to produce too many hormones.
- Irritability. Mood swings, nervousness, and anxiety are similar to symptoms of an underactive thyroid.
- Sweating. You may feel like you’re overheated most of the time.
- Sudden weight loss. Your appetite may increase but you still lose weight.
- Rapid heartbeat. You may have an irregular heartbeat or feel like your heart is pounding.
- Tremors. Your hands and fingers may tremble.
- Irregular menstrual cycle. You may have increased or decreased menstruation.
- Changes in bowel movements. You may need to go to the bathroom more than normal.
- An enlarged thyroid gland. You’ll see a swelling at the base of your neck where your thyroid gland is located.
- Feeling tired. In addition to feeling fatigued, your muscles may ache.
- Insomnia. You may have trouble sleeping.
- Brittle hair. The texture of your hair may change.
What causes signs of thyroid problems?
The causes of an underactive and an overactive thyroid are different and, in some cases, can overlap.
Causes of hypothyroidism
- Hashimoto’s disease. This condition is an autoimmune disorder in which your body attacks thyroid tissue. Over time, the tissue dies and stops producing thyroid hormones. The exact cause of Hashimoto’s is not known. Many researchers believe it’s hereditary; if one or both of your parents have it, your risk increases.
- Removal of your thyroid gland. The thyroid can be removed surgically or chemically destroyed, in which case your body won’t naturally have the hormones your thyroid produces.
- Too much iodine. Some cold and sinus medications, heart medicines, or dyes given before some x-rays may expose you to large amounts of iodine.
- Lithium. Research shows that there’s a link between this drug, often used to treat bipolar disorder, and hypothyroidism.
Causes of hyperthyroidism
- Graves’s disease. This autoimmune disorder occurs when antibodies produced by your immune system cause your thyroid to make too much thyroid hormone, called T-4. Researchers aren’t sure what causes Graves’ disease. They do believe it can be genetic.
- Toxic adenoma, toxic multinodular goiter, and Plummer’s disease. Those conditions can occur when one or more adenomas (a benign tumor of glandular tissue) of your thyroid produce too much thyroid hormone.
- Thyroiditis. If your thyroid gland becomes inflamed, it can cause excess thyroid hormones to leak into your bloodstream.
A simple blood test will confirm whether you have an over- or underactive thyroid. Once your doctor finds out the source of your thyroid problem, you’ll be able to control it with medication. Determining the correct dosage may take some time and can change over time.
Treatment for hypothyroidism
Your doctor will prescribe a daily synthetic thyroid hormone pill. You will take the pill approximately the same time every day. If you take vitamins, mineral supplements, or other medications, talk to your doctor. You will most likely space out the time between taking the thyroid medication and your other pills or vitamins. Usually, it’s recommended that you wait at least four hours after taking thyroid meds to consume other pills.
After taking your thyroid medication, you’ll notice feeling less fatigued.
Treatment for hyperthyroidism
Your doctor may prescribe radioactive iodine, which comes in pill form for your thyroid gland to absorb.
Anti-thyroid medications are another option. The medications can often clear up the problem permanently. Some people, however, can experience a relapse. Talk to your doctor about any potential side effects these medications cause.
Your doctor may also prescribe beta blockers. Commonly used to treat high blood pressure, beta blockers can reduce a rapid heart rate and prevent palpitations.
Surgery is an option for pregnant women or people who have adverse reactions to medications for hyperthyroidism. Removal of the thyroid gland is rare. If yours is removed, you’ll need to take thyroid medication to supply your body with normal amounts of thyroid hormones.
If you experience symptoms of thyroid problems, contact your doctor to schedule a simple blood test to determine the cause.
September 27, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN