When your thyroid gland doesn't produce enough of certain hormones, it is known as hypothyroidism or an underactive thyroid. This is a common condition in women, particularly women over the age of 50. In the early stages, there are usually no symptoms, but in time symptoms will develop. Untreated hypothyroidism can lead to complications.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck. Its purpose is to make hormones that control the way your body uses energy, and this gland has a significant effect on all aspects of your metabolism. Teens sometimes develop underactive thyroids. Babies are occasionally born with a thyroid gland that doesn't work properly. However, hypothyroidism most often affects older and middle-aged women.
Symptoms vary depending on the severity of the hormone deficiency. Typically symptoms develop slowly over time. Initially you may feel fatigued or weak. Your nails may become dry and brittle and you may be sensitive to cold temperatures. You may have trouble thinking clearly or develop memory problems. Menstrual periods may become heavy or irregular. You may become constipated. If the condition remains untreated, your symptoms may become more severe, and you may experience muscle aches and weakness, weight gain or swelling of face or extremities.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto thyroiditis. An autoimmune disease is one in which the body attacks its own tissue as if it were invasive. Hypothyroidism can also develop from radiation therapy, particularly when used to treat cancers of the head and neck. If you have had surgery to remove all or part of your thyroid gland, you will most likely have to take thyroid hormones for life.
Untreated hypothyroidism can lead to several complications. Your thyroid gland may become enlarged (goiter), which may affect your appearance or lead to difficulty breathing or swallowing. An underactive thyroid may lead to abnormal cholesterol readings, which in turn may lead to heart problems. Hypothyroidism can lead to depression. A very serious but rare complication is called myxedema. Symptoms of myxedema include intolerance to cold, drowsiness and unconsciousness.
Treatment for underactive thyroid is to replace the hormone that is deficient. Your doctor will prescribe the lowest dose that brings your levels into a normal range. You will probably need to have your thyroid levels checked every two to three months. It's important that you don't discontinue taking your medication even when you start to feel better. Tell your doctor if you start to have symptoms of an overactive thyroid after you begin taking medication, such as shakiness, sweating or rapid weight loss.
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