Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain important hormones.
Women, especially those older than age 60, are more likely to have hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism upsets the normal balance of chemical reactions in your body. It seldom causes symptoms in the early stages, but, over time, untreated hypothyroidism can cause a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.
The good news is that accurate thyroid function tests are available to diagnose hypothyroidism, and treatment of hypothyroidism with synthetic thyroid hormone is usually simple, safe and effective once you and your doctor find the right dose for you.
When your thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones, the balance of chemical reactions in your body can be upset. There can be a number of causes, including autoimmune disease, treatment for hyperthyroidism, radiation therapy, thyroid surgery and certain medications.
Your thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland situated at the base of the front of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. Hormones produced by the thyroid gland — triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) — have an enormous impact on your health, affecting all aspects of your metabolism. They maintain the rate at which your body uses fats and carbohydrates, help control your body temperature, influence your heart rate, and help regulate the production of proteins.
Hypothyroidism results when the thyroid gland fails to produce enough hormones. Hypothyroidism may be due to a number of factors, including:
- Autoimmune disease. People who develop a particular inflammatory disorder known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis suffer from the most common cause of hypothyroidism. Autoimmune disorders occur when your immune system produces antibodies that attack your own tissues. Sometimes this process involves your thyroid gland. Scientists aren’t sure why the body produces antibodies against itself. Some think a virus or bacterium might trigger the response, while others believe a genetic flaw may be involved. Most likely, autoimmune diseases result from more than one factor. But however it happens, these antibodies affect the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones.
- Treatment for hyperthyroidism. People who produce too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) are often treated with radioactive iodine or anti-thyroid medications to reduce and normalize their thyroid function. However, in some cases, treatment of hyperthyroidism can result in permanent hypothyroidism.
- Thyroid surgery. Removing all or a large portion of your thyroid gland can diminish or halt hormone production. In that case, you’ll need to take thyroid hormone for life.
- Radiation therapy. Radiation used to treat cancers of the head and neck can affect your thyroid gland and may lead to hypothyroidism.
- Medications. A number of medications can contribute to hypothyroidism. One such medication is lithium, which is used to treat certain psychiatric disorders. If you’re taking medication, ask your doctor about its effect on your thyroid gland.
Less often, hypothyroidism may result from one of the following:
- Congenital disease. Some babies are born with a defective thyroid gland or no thyroid gland. In most cases, the thyroid gland didn’t develop normally for unknown reasons, but some children have an inherited form of the disorder. Often, infants with congenital hypothyroidism appear normal at birth. That’s one reason why most states now require newborn thyroid screening.
- Pituitary disorder. A relatively rare cause of hypothyroidism is the failure of the pituitary gland to produce enough thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) — usually because of a benign tumor of the pituitary gland.
- Pregnancy. Some women develop hypothyroidism during or after pregnancy (postpartum hypothyroidism), often because they produce antibodies to their own thyroid gland. Left untreated, hypothyroidism increases the risk of miscarriage, premature delivery and preeclampsia — a condition that causes a significant rise in a woman’s blood pressure during the last three months of pregnancy. It can also seriously affect the developing fetus.
- Iodine deficiency. The trace mineral iodine — found primarily in seafood, seaweed, plants grown in iodine-rich soil and iodized salt — is essential for the production of thyroid hormones. In some parts of the world, iodine deficiency is common, but the addition of iodine to table salt has virtually eliminated this problem in the United States. Conversely, taking in too much iodine can cause hypothyroidism.
The signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism vary, depending on the severity of the hormone deficiency. But in general, any problems you have tend to develop slowly, often over a number of years.
At first, you may barely notice the symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as fatigue and weight gain, or you may simply attribute them to getting older. But as your metabolism continues to slow, you may develop more obvious signs and symptoms. Hypothyroidism signs and symptom may include:
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Dry skin
- Unexplained weight gain
- Puffy face
- Muscle weakness
- Elevated blood cholesterol level
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
- Pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints
- Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual periods
- Thinning hair
- Slowed heart rate
- Impaired memory
When hypothyroidism isn’t treated, signs and symptoms can gradually become more severe. Constant stimulation of your thyroid gland to release more hormones may lead to an enlarged thyroid (goiter). In addition, you may become more forgetful, your thought processes may slow, or you may feel depressed.
Advanced hypothyroidism, known as myxedema, is rare, but when it occurs it can be life-threatening. Signs and symptoms include low blood pressure, decreased breathing, decreased body temperature, unresponsiveness and even coma. In extreme cases, myxedema can be fatal.
Hypothyroidism in infants
Although hypothyroidism most often affects middle-aged and older women, anyone can develop the condition, including infants. Initially, babies born without a thyroid gland or with a gland that doesn’t work properly may have few signs and symptoms. When newborns do have problems with hypothyroidism, they may include:
- Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice). In most cases, this occurs when a baby’s liver can’t metabolize a substance called bilirubin, which normally forms when the body recycles old or damaged red blood cells.
- Frequent choking.
- A large, protruding tongue.
- A puffy appearance to the face.
As the disease progresses, infants are likely to have trouble feeding and may fail to grow and develop normally. They may also have:
- Poor muscle tone
- Excessive sleepiness
When hypothyroidism in infants isn’t treated, even mild cases can lead to severe physical and mental retardation.
Hypothyroidism in children and teens
In general, children and teens who develop hypothyroidism have the same signs and symptoms as adults do, but they may also experience:
- Poor growth, resulting in short stature
- Delayed development of permanent teeth
- Delayed puberty
- Poor mental development
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you’re feeling tired for no reason or have any of the other signs or symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as dry skin, a pale, puffy face, constipation or a hoarse voice.
You’ll also need to see your doctor for periodic testing of your thyroid function if you’ve had previous thyroid surgery; treatment with radioactive iodine or anti-thyroid medications; or radiation therapy to your head, neck or upper chest. However, it may take years or even decades before any of these therapies or procedures result in hypothyroidism.
If you have high blood cholesterol, talk to your doctor about whether hypothyroidism may be a cause. And if you’re receiving hormone therapy for hypothyroidism, schedule follow-up visits as often as your doctor recommends. Initially, it’s important to make sure you’re receiving the correct dose of medicine. And over time, the dose you need may change.