Your Guide to Thyroid Disease

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Who Gets Thyroid Disease?

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An estimated 20 million Americans live with some form of thyroid disease, so if you don’t have it yourself, chances are you know someone who does.

Thyroid disease affects 5 to 8 times more women than men, and 1 woman in 8 will develop some type of thyroid disease at some point in her life. But what exactly is your thyroid and what happens when you have thyroid disease?

Your Thyroid Is a Vital Gland

Your thyroid is part of your endocrine system. It’s a small butterfly-shaped gland found at the base of your neck, right in the center. Its main job is to produce hormones, namely T3 and T4, which help regulate your body’s metabolism. It controls how fast your heart beats, how your body uses the food you consume, your muscular strength, menstrual cycles, and even how cold or warm you may feel, among many other things. If your thyroid isn’t working properly, symptoms can range from being annoying to serious, even life threatening.

Very Common Thyroid Nodules

Having a nodule or growth of abnormal tissue on your thyroid is quite common and while your doctor may want to do some tests to rule out anything serious, up to 90% of thyroid nodules are benign, which means they are not cancerous. Nodules are often found by accident, either through testing for another medical condition or during a physical exam when your doctor feels your neck.  

Although it’s rare, some people may notice some symptoms caused by a nodule, such as pain in the neck, jaw or ear. Or the nodule may be large enough to cause problems with swallowing or breathing, or hoarseness when talking. If you notice a nodule, don’t hesitate to have it checked, but remember that most such nodules are harmless.

When Your Thyroid Is Underactive: Hypothyroidism

Having an underactive thyroid is more common than many people may think. Almost 5 people out of 10 in the U.S. have hypothyroidism to some degree and it’s more common among women over the age of 60. Some of the symptoms may be shrugged off at first since they could be related to a hectic lifestyle, but some of the main symptoms to watch for include:

  • Fatigue and weight gain
  • A puffy face
  • Feeling cold
  • Dry skin, and dry and thinning hair
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Constipation
  • Goiter: a swelling of the neck

Hypothyroidism can usually be treated with replacement thyroid hormones, to be taken every day. Be patient, as it often takes weeks for serum thyroid hormone levels to return to normal. Your doctor may have to adjust the daily dosage to achieve the desired levels. The doses are very precise, so it’s important you understand how much you should take and you should be tested regularly according to your doctor’s treatment plan to ensure you are getting the right amount of medication.

When Your Thyroid Is Overactive: Hyperthyroidism

Just as your thyroid can become too sluggish and not provide you with enough thyroid hormones, it could start producing too high a level of hormones and cause hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism affects about 1 person out of 100. The overproduction of hormones overstimulates your body and could cause serious harm and, in some cases, be fatal. As with hypothyroidism, the signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism may first be ignored or you may think there’s another cause, but the most common ones are:

  • Nervousness, irritability, mood swings
  • Fatigue or muscle weakness
  • Feeling hot
  • Insomnia
  • Trembling, shaky hands
  • Fast, irregular heartbeat
  • Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Goiter

How your doctor suggests treating your hyperthyroidism depends on the cause and how it’s affecting you. In many cases, your thyroid may be removed or destroyed with radiation therapy. This means your body would no longer be able to produce any thyroid hormones and you would take replacement hormones for the rest of your life.

In other cases, your doctor may not want to remove your thyroid and you may be given antithyroid drugs that block the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones. Discuss your options with your doctor to see which approach is best for you.

Thyroid Cancer: Rare Compared to Other Cancers

Thyroid cancer isn’t very common. Luckily, thyroid cancer is usually caught early enough to be cured. The most common signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer include:

  • Lump in the neck
  • Swelling in the neck
  • Pain in the front of the neck
  • Pain going up to the ears
  • Hoarseness, voice changes
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Constant, unexplained cough

Early cancer detection, during stages 1 and 2, has an almost 100% five-year survival rate. The rate is still high at 93% if the cancer is detected at stage 3. Early diagnosis and treatment does make a significant difference when it comes to thyroid cancer.

Other Types of Thyroid Disease

Hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism and thyroid cancer are just three types of thyroid diseases that can affect you. Other conditions, such as thyroiditis, can cause symptoms similar to hypothyroidism. So if you are experiencing signs and symptoms of an overactive or underactive thyroid, or unexplained lumps in the thyroid area, speak with your doctor about being tested for your thyroid levels. It doesn’t hurt to check into it!

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Feb 15
  1. Thyroid Nodules. American Thyroid Association. http://www.thyroid.org/wp-content/uploads/patients/brochures/Nodules_brochure.pdf
  2. Thyroid nodules. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/thyroid-nodules/basics/definition/con-20021546
  3. General Information/Press Room. American Thyroid Association.
    http://www.thyroid.org/media-main/about-hypothyroidism/
  4. Hypothyroidism (Underactive Thyroid). National Institute of
    Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Part of the National Institutes of
    Health. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/endocrine/hypothyroidism/Pages/fact-sheet.aspx
  5. Hyperthyroidism. National Institute of Diabetes and
    Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Part of the National Institutes of Health. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/endocrine/hyperthyroidism/Pages/fact-sheet.aspx
  6. Signs
    and symptoms of thyroid cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/thyroidcancer/detailedguide/thyroid-cancer-signs-symptoms
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