The thyroid is a small but mighty gland located at the base of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple. It produces and releases important hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism– the process by which the food you eat is transformed into energy. This energy fuels many of your body’s metabolic functions such as breathing, blood circulation, muscle contraction, temperature control, digestion, brain function, and more.

Since the thyroid gland plays a crucial role in producing hormones that affect almost every part of the body, problems with this gland can have a wide-ranging impact on your health.

Common thyroid problems

Several problems can affect the thyroid such as abnormal growths (lumps or nodules) or thyroid cancer, but the most common disorders of the thyroid are hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.

Hyperthyroidism occurs when your thyroid becomes overactive and produces too much thyroid hormones. This causes the body to use energy more quickly than it should. In contrast, hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid becomes underactive and produces too little thyroid hormones. Too little hormones slow down your metabolism and cause your body to use energy more slowly than it should.

These conditions can cause uncomfortable but harmless symptoms in most people. However, if left undetected and untreated for a long time, these can lead to severe complications. For instance, long-term untreated or undertreated hyperthyroidism can lead to heart failure, osteoporosis, and thyroid storm –a life-threatening condition that can result in heart-failure, seizure, or coma. In contrast, untreated hypothyroidism can lead to myxedema coma, a rare but severe complication in which the body’s functions slow to a life-threatening point.

The good news is that thyroid disorders can usually be treated effectively before it leads to more severe cases. This is why it is important to spot the symptoms early and get yourself checked and treated.

Signs that you have a thyroid problem

Here are some common signs and symptoms of thyroid problems to watch out for:

1. Fatigue

Feeling tired and sluggish almost all the time is a common symptom of both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.

If you have an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), your metabolism slows down, causing fewer calories burned and ultimately leading to less energy to perform daily activities.

Having an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) can also cause fatigue but in a different way. When the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone, it overstimulates the nervous system, making it difficult for you to get a quality night’s sleep. The lack of sleep can leave you feeling tired and weak during the day.

2. Weight changes (without changes in eating or exercise habits)

The thyroid hormone plays a role in regulating metabolism, so when there is an imbalance in its production due to a thyroid problem, it can affect weight. In hypothyroidism, weight gain can occur due to a slower metabolism. Having a slow metabolism means that you are unable to burn enough calories to maintain a healthy weight.

In contrast, in hyperthyroidism, your thyroid gland produces too much hormones, hastening your metabolism and ultimately causing weight loss.

3. Increased sensitivity to hot or cold temperature

Metabolism not only produces energy but also generates heat that helps maintain the body’s normal temperature.

When your thyroid gland produces more thyroid hormones than your body needs, your metabolism speeds up and more heat is produced. This causes the body temperature to rise, leading to feeling hot and low tolerance for warm temperatures. Alternatively, when your thyroid gland produces too little thyroid hormones, less heat is produced and your core temperature decreases making it hard for you to tolerate cold temperature.

4. Changes in Heart Rate

The thyroid gland directly affects your heart function, so a thyroid problem can cause changes in heart rate. An overactive thyroid gland can make your heart race, pound, or flutter, while an underactive thyroid gland can cause your heart rate to slow down. With hypothyroidism, you may experience symptoms such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, constricted blood vessels, and fluid retention (causes swelling). Heart failure may occur if those symptoms are left untreated.

5. Mood changes

The thyroid gland controls hormones in your body that are associated with mood. If you have hyperthyroidism, you may experience anxiety, irritability, and nervousness. The sleeping difficulty associated with hyperthyroidism can also contribute to changes in mood during the day.

Hypothyroidism can cause depression. If you are not responding to medication for depression and/or are experiencing an increased frequency of anxiety attacks or panic attacks, ask your doctor about thyroid disease.

6. Skin, hair, and nail changes

After prolonged, severe thyroid problems, you may notice changes in your hair, skin, and nails.

Your hair can become thinner and brittle. You may also experience hair loss from your head and even your eyebrows. In addition to hair issues, your skin can also become dry, pale, or itchy. You may also experience other symptoms such as swollen face and brittle nails with ridges.

7. Changes in Bowel Movements

If you experience frequent constipation despite maintaining a healthy diet, it may be a sign of hypothyroidism, as slower metabolism leads to a slower digestive process. In contrast, if you have an overactive thyroid gland, you may experience diarrhea or more frequent bowel movements.

8. Infertility and Menstrual Irregularities

Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can affect the ability of women to get pregnant. This is because problems with the thyroid hormone can upset the balance of the hormones essential for ovulation. Hypothyroidism can also cause excess production of a hormone (prolactin) that prevents ovulation, which causes difficulties if you're trying to get pregnant.

Thyroid problems can also affect the menstrual cycle in women. If you have an underactive thyroid, your periods may experience frequent and heavy menstrual periods. You may also be at a higher risk for problems during pregnancy including pre-eclampsia and miscarriage.

Alternatively, if you have an overactive thyroid, you may experience irregular menstrual periods or having your menstrual cycle stop.

Next steps

If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, schedule a medical appointment. Your doctor can perform a physical exam, evaluate your symptoms, and perform diagnostic tests to determine if you really have a thyroid problem and what type of thyroid problem it may be. This is important because, while the above symptoms may point to a problem with your thyroid, it is also highly likely that your symptoms may be caused by other conditions which may be even more potentially serious than a thyroid problem.

If your doctor finds that you really have a thyroid problem, he/she will work with you to develop appropriate treatment plan depending on the specific nature of your condition and the underlying cause. Possible treatments may include medicines, radioiodine therapy, or thyroid surgery.

A thyroid disease is often a life-long medical condition. But with proper treatment, it can be effectively managed, allowing you to maintain good health and live a normal life.

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