Your thyroid is the size of a butterfly-shaped lemon, but even though it's small, it's mighty. The thyroid gland makes hormones that support many bodily functions, such as breathing, pumping blood and burning calories.
Most of the time, the thyroid does what it's supposed to do, but sometimes a problem can cause it to produce too little or too much hormone. Depending on the underlying issue, this can lead to a range of symptoms, like fatigue, anxiety and weight changes.
If you're wondering how to know whether you have a thyroid problem, it's important to note that only a healthcare provider can give you an actual diagnosis, which will require tests and a clinical exam. However, your body will likely send you a few clues. Here are some common signs of thyroid issues to watch out for.
Common problems: hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism
More than one in 10 people will develop a thyroid problem in their lifetime, estimates the American Thyroid Association (ATA). Many of these problems can lead to either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
The more common of the two, hypothyroidism, happens when the thyroid makes too little hormone. This underproduction can slow down body functions like digestion and metabolism, leading to symptoms such as tiredness, weight gain and constipation. Up to 3.7% of people in the United States have hypothyroidism.
When the thyroid makes too much hormone, it's known as hyperthyroidism. This overproduction can speed up your body's functions, leading to symptoms like restlessness, weight loss and diarrhea. Just 0.8% of people in the United States have hyperthyroidism.
Though the two conditions can cause opposite symptoms, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism share something in common: They are each the result of an underlying problem, usually an autoimmune disorder. For example, the autoimmune condition Hashimoto's disease can cause hypothyroidism, while Grave's disease can lead to hyperthyroidism. If you have a thyroid problem, your healthcare provider will be able to help you determine the underlying cause.
Other causes include too much iodine or thyroid nodules (for hyperthyroidism) and prior thyroid treatments (for hypothyroidism). Thyroiditis, which is when the thyroid becomes inflamed, can also cause hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
Who is at risk of developing thyroid problems?
Women and people over 60 years of age have a higher risk of developing either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. If you've been pregnant or had a baby within the past six months, you also face a higher risk.
Personal or family history risk factors can also play a role, including:
- Prior thyroid problems, such as a goiter or a family history of them
- Prior thyroid surgery or radiation treatments to the neck or chest
- Anemia, type 1 diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Turner's syndrome or Sjogren's syndrome
- Consuming high-iodine foods, medications or supplements
Signs and symptoms of thyroid problems
Symptoms of thyroid problems aren't always obvious. In fact, the ATA estimates that up to six in 10 people with thyroid problems do not know they have them. Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can cause feelings most people have from time to time, such as mood swings or tiredness, so how can you tell the difference between an everyday symptom and something that needs treatment? Check in with your body often, and if any of the following signs persist, talk to your provider.
Common symptoms of hypothyroidism
- Weight gain
- Reduced sweating
- Muscle or joint aches
- Slow heart rate
- Menstrual irregularities
- Dry skin or hair
- Fertility problems
- Feeling overly cold
Common symptoms of hyperthyroidism
- Weight loss
- Increased sweating
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Muscle weakness
- Fast heart rate
- Shaking hands
- Inability to sleep
- Feeling overly hot
Getting a diagnosis and treatment
Together with a physical exam and medical history, diagnostic tests are necessary to determine if you have a thyroid problem.
Your provider may order blood tests to check your TSH, T4 and T3. These tests detect the levels of hormones in your blood, which can indicate hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. You may also need to take a thyroid antibody blood test, which can help diagnose underlying autoimmune diseases that can cause hormonal imbalances.
Some people may also need an ultrasound. This scan uses sound waves to take pictures of the thyroid gland and can identify thyroid nodules that may be affecting thyroid function.
If you are diagnosed with a thyroid problem, know that there are treatments available. Many people take medications to balance their hormones, while some may need thyroid surgery or radioiodine therapy. Taking action is critical to your thyroid health, and providers see thyroid issues often, so share your concerns, ask questions and partner with your care team to find a treatment plan that works for you.