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Thyroid Disease Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Thyroid disease comes from an overactive or underactive thyroid gland. This butterfly-shaped organ in your neck makes hormones that manage your metabolism.

Thyroid disease can affect your energy and weight and lead to serious complications.

Women are more likely than men to suffer from thyroid disease.

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What Is Thyroid Disease?

Doctors define thyroid disease as a health issue of the thyroid gland. This gland makes hormones that control your metabolism — how your body uses energy.

Thyroid disease causes your thyroid gland to make too much or too little of the hormones.

These hormones affect your:

  • Breathing.
  • Digestion
  • Heart rate.
  • Moods.
  • Weight.

Thyroid disease is common.

About 20 million people in the U.S. have thyroid disease. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have the disease.

Thyroid disease tends to be a lifelong issue. But doctors can manage it with medicine, surgery, and other treatments.

What are the types of thyroid disease?

There are two main types of thyroid disease:

  • Hypothyroidism. This happens when your thyroid gland doesn't make enough thyroid hormone. Your metabolism slows. An underactive thyroid may cause you to gain weight and feel tired.
  • Hyperthyroidism. This happens when your thyroid gland makes too much thyroid hormone. An overactive thyroid makes your metabolism speed up. You may lose weight and have a fast heartbeat.

What causes thyroid disease?

The two main types of thyroid disease have different causes.

The most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto's disease. This disease causes the immune system to attack the thyroid by mistake. Other causes are radiation treatment for certain cancers and treatment for hyperthyroidism.

The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves' disease, an immune system disorder. Taking too much thyroid hormone to treat hypothyroidism may also be a cause.

What are thyroid disease risk factors and complications?

Thyroid disease risk factors

You're more likely to get thyroid disease if you:

  • Are a woman.
  • Are older than 60.
  • Have a family history of thyroid disease.
  • Have certain health issues (like diabetes, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis).
  • Have had treatment for a past thyroid disorder or thyroid cancer.
  • Take medicine high in iodine.

Complications of thyroid disease

Left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to:

  • An increased risk of miscarriage or other problems during pregnancy.
  • Goiter, or an enlarged thyroid.
  • Heart problems.
  • Myxedema coma, a life-threatening issue where body functions slow down to dangerous levels.

Left untreated, hyperthyroidism can lead to:

  • Fast, irregular heart rate.
  • Heart failure.
  • Problems during pregnancy such as preeclampsia, preterm birth, or low birth weight.
  • Thyroid eye disease.
  • Thyroid storm, a life-threatening issue with extremely high heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Weakened bones.

How can I prevent thyroid disease?

There's no known way to prevent thyroid disease.

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Thyroid Disease Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the signs and symptoms of thyroid disease?

Thyroid symptoms vary based on what kind of thyroid disease you have.

Hypothyroidism symptoms start slowly. You may feel tired and lethargic.

Later, symptoms may include:

  • A hoarse voice.
  • A puffy face.
  • Constipation.
  • Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter).
  • Exhaustion.
  • Feeling cold when others around you don't.
  • Heavy periods.
  • High LDL (“bad") cholesterol.
  • Impaired memory.
  • Joint pain.
  • Muscle pain or weakness.
  • Pale, dry skin.
  • Sadness and depression.
  • Slower heart rate.
  • Thinning hair.
  • Weight gain you can't explain.

Hyperthyroidism symptoms include:

  • Eating more than normal.
  • Eye bulging, redness, or irritation.
  • Fatigue.
  • Feeling hot when other people don't.
  • Fewer, lighter periods.
  • Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea.
  • Increased sweating.
  • Irritability.
  • Nervousness.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Trembling hands and fingers.
  • Weight loss you can't explain.

How do you diagnose thyroid disease?

Your doctor will ask you about your health history and do a physical exam.

They'll feel your neck while you swallow. The thyroid gland moves up and down when you swallow.

Your doctor may order tests, such as a:

  • Blood draw.
  • Thyroid scan using a radioactive iodine tracer.
  • Thyroid ultrasound.
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How Do You Treat Thyroid Disease?

The endocrine doctors at UPMC take a team approach to treating thyroid disease. They can tailor treatment to meet your unique needs.

They use high-tech imaging and cutting-edge surgical techniques.

UPMC also offers access to clinical trials and same-day screenings for thyroid issues.

Hypothyroidism treatments

Doctors treat hypothyroidism with medicine that has the thyroid hormone. They slowly increase the dose until your blood reaches a normal hormone level.

Symptoms often start to improve within a few weeks.

You'll likely have to take this medicine for the rest of your life.

Your doctor will keep watching your hormone levels and adjust your dose if needed. Taking too much thyroid hormone can lead to symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

Hyperthyroidism treatments

Treatment for hyperthyroidism depends on the symptoms and causes.

Doctors may treat it with:

  • Antithyroid drugs. These block the thyroid from making new hormones and don't cause any lasting effects on the thyroid.
  • Beta-blockers. These block the thyroid hormone's effects on your body. Beta-blockers can slow your heart rate until you get some other form of treatment. They don't reduce the amount of hormone your thyroid makes.
  • Radioiodine. This treatment destroys the cells that make thyroid hormone. But it can also cause hypothyroidism. You may have to take thyroid hormone to restore normal levels of the hormone in your blood.
  • Surgery to remove some or all of the thyroid. Surgery can cause life-long hypothyroidism. If that's the case, you'll have to take thyroid hormone to restore normal levels of the hormone in your blood.

Thyroid disease prognosis

With proper treatment, most people with thyroid disease can live a normal life.

After the first treatment, your doctor will want to see you on a routine basis. They can help you manage your thyroid issue.

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