What All Women Should Know About Their Thyroid

Woman getting her thyroid checked via ultrasound

Thyroid issues are more common in women than in men. One in eight women will suffer from thyroid problems at some point during her life, so it is especially important for women to be educated about what the thyroid does, issues that may arise, and treatment options. January is Thyroid Awareness Month, so we have put together a brief primer on the most common thyroid problems for women.

What Does the Thyroid Do?

The thyroid is a small gland found at the base of the neck. It is responsible for producing several hormones, including Thyroxine (T4), Triiodothyronine (T3), and Calcitonin. Thyroid hormones affect many functions of the body, including metabolism, puberty and menstruation, reproduction, pregnancy, postpartum recovery, and menopause. Women are more likely to experience thyroid problems immediately after pregnancy or menopause, but they can affect any woman at any time. Women who have experienced a thyroid problem in the past, have had surgery or therapy that affected their thyroid, or have a condition like a goiter, anemia, or type 1 diabetes are all more likely to experience further thyroid problems.

Most Common Thyroid Problems for Women

  • Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormones. Hypothyroidism is typically caused by Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune disease), but it can also be caused by thyroid removal, radiation to the thyroid, or treatment for hyperthyroidism.

The signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism vary, but include muscle weakness, weight gain, heavier menstruation than usual, slow heart rate, thinning hair, dry and pale skin, and joint and muscle pain. Hypothyroidism can make it more difficult to become pregnant, since the lack of thyroid hormones can disturb ovulation. The condition has also been shown to lead to an increased risk of cysts developing in the ovaries. While pregnant, hypothyroidism may increase your chance of miscarriage, stillbirth, and postpartum hemorrhage. Hypothyroidism can be treated with physician-prescribed thyroid hormone pills.

  • Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone. It is most typically caused by Graves’ disease, which is an autoimmune disorder. Much like hypothyroidism, its symptoms are varied but include increased swelling, weight loss, shaking hands and fingers, irregular heartbeat, lighter menstrual cycles than usual, and bulging, redness, or irritation to the eyes. Some symptoms of hyperthyroidism are often confused for menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes, lack of menstruation, and mood swings. Hyperthyroidism often raises your chances of developing osteoporosis, another disorder that mainly affects women. Hyperthyroidism can be treated several ways; your doctor will prescribe the best treatment for you dependent on the cause and symptoms of your hyperthyroidism. Treatments include medications like antithyroid medications and betablockers, as well as radioiodine and surgery.

  • Thyroiditis

Thyroiditis is the inflammation of the thyroid. The most common causes of thyroiditis are autoimmune conditions, viral or bacterial infections, and genetics. The two most common types of thyroiditis are Hashimoto’s disease and postpartum thyroiditis. Post-partum thyroiditis is common, affecting about 10% of women who give birth. Your risk for developing post-partum thyroiditis is increased if you have an autoimmune disease, you have a family history of thyroid conditions, or you have chronic viral hepatitis. The symptoms of thyroiditis typically occur in two phases, but not all patients experience both phases. In the first one to two months of the condition, most people experience the symptoms of hyperthyroidism. ln the next six to twelve months, most patients experience the symptoms of hypothyroidism. Depending on your symptoms and the stage of your thyroiditis, your doctor may recommend different medications or treatments, or they may let the thyroid return to normal on its own.

  • Goiter

A goiter occurs when a section of the thyroid becomes unusually enlarged. You may experience swelling or feel a lump on your neck. Extreme goiters may cause coughing and trouble swallowing or breathing. Goiters are more likely to affect women, especially those who are postmenopausal. Goiters can occur for a variety of reasons including Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease, thyroiditis, thyroid nodules, lack of iodine in diet, or thyroid cancer. A physician can test the goiter to determine the cause and if any treatment is necessary. If your goiter is not affecting the function of the thyroid or your everyday life, your doctor may not prescribe treatment. If you do need treatment, your doctor should prescribe medication to shrink the goiter.

  • Thyroid Nodules

Thyroid nodules occur when there is swelling in one of the thyroid’s sections. If you have a nodule, you may be able to see or feel it yourself. Some nodules may not cause problems or have any other symptoms. Other times they may cause trouble breathing or cause hypothyroidism by producing too much thyroid hormone. Most thyroid nodules are not cancerous, but they could be a sign of thyroid cancer. Depending on the type of nodule you have, your doctor may recommend waiting and watching the nodule, or they may recommend treatment through surgery or radioiodine.

  • Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid Cancer is caused by cancerous cells growing in the thyroid gland. Most people with thyroid cancer do not experience symptoms, apart from swelling or a thyroid nodule. Thyroid cancer rates are currently rising, and women get thyroid cancer three times as often as men do. If you have family history of thyroid disease, or you have had a goiter or radiation treatment that may have affected your thyroid, you are at higher risk for developing thyroid cancer. If a physician diagnoses you with thyroid cancer, the most common treatment option is surgery to remove the thyroid. Sometimes surgery is followed with radioiodine, which will destroy any thyroid cells left behind after the surgery.

If you think you may be at risk for developing a thyroid problem, or you want to take steps to protect yourself during pregnancy or menopause, give Capital Women’s Care a call.

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