medical provider examining a patient's thyroid with a nurse taking notes

January is Thyroid Awareness Month.

Like other awareness months, the goal of thyroid awareness month is to bring attention to the importance of thyroid health, encourage early diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disease, and to help raise awareness for those living with thyroid conditions. 

And while most of us have some knowledge of what the thyroid gland is, many are unaware of just how big a role it plays in all our bodies’ systems.

What is the thyroid?

The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the middle of your neck above the collarbone and in front of your windpipe. 

Part of the endocrine system, this tiny hormone-producing gland regulates so many important functions. Metabolism, heart rate, breathing, body temperature, muscle strength, body weight, and cholesterol levels are all regulated by the thyroid. 

In fact, according to the American Thyroid Association

“Although the thyroid gland is relatively small, it produces a hormone that influences every cell, tissue and organ in the body.”

So it’s important to keep it functioning healthy. Luckily, there are many options for those living with thyroid conditions.

Types of thyroid disease

Thyroid disease refers to any condition that affects how the thyroid functions. There are several types of thyroid disease including hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, thyroid cancers, and autoimmune thyroid conditions. 

Hypothyroidism

Most common in women over 60, hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Common symptoms include weight gain, fatigue, constipation, hair loss, sensitivity to cold, and dry skin. 

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid produces too much thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Common symptoms include weight loss, irregular heartbeat, muscle weakness, sensitivity to heat, and anxiety.

Autoimmune Thyroid Disorders

Autoimmune thyroid disorders are organ-specific autoimmune disorders that primarily affect the thyroid. They include Grave’s disease, Hashimoto’s disease, postpartum thyroiditis, and atrophic autoimmune hypothyroidism. 

Grave’s disease - also called diffuse toxic goiter, results in an uncontrolled production of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) resulting in hyperthyroidism. 

Hashimoto’s disease - also called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (or chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis) is characterized by a loss of thyroid cells which eventually leads to hypothyroidism. 

Postpartum thyroiditis - is a temporary condition that can occur shortly after a woman has given birth. It usually starts off with an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) followed by an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). 

Atrophic autoimmune hypothyroidism - is a very rare form of hypothyroidism in which a certain type of antibody is present.

Thyroid Cancer

There are four types of thyroid cancer

  • Papillary thyroid cancer
  • Follicular thyroid cancer
  • Medullary thyroid cancer
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer

Treatment options depend on the type of thyroid cancer.

For more information on thyroid cancer, check out the following resources.

American Cancer Society

American Thyroid Association

Mayo Clinic

What causes thyroid disease?

There’s still a lot that is unknown about the causes of thyroid disorders, but we do know that they tend to affect women more than men. 

In fact, women are five to eight times more likely to develop thyroid disease than men.

Some lifestyle factors or other medical conditions can increase your chance of developing a thyroid condition. For example, those with an autoimmune condition are more likely to develop another, including an autoimmune thyroid condition. 

Genetics play a role as well. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic:

“You may be at a higher risk of developing a thyroid disease if you:
  • Have a family history of thyroid disease
  • Have a medical condition (these can include pernicious anemia, type 1 diabetes, primary adrenal insufficiency, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome and Turner syndrome)
  • Take a medication that’s high in iodine (amiodarone)
  • Are older than 60, especially in women
  • Have had treatment for a past thyroid condition or cancer (thyroidectomy or radiation)”

Diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disease

Diagnosing a thyroid disorder can be tricky because symptoms are often confused with other conditions. That’s why it’s important to see your provider regularly and follow their advice for routine exams, blood work, and imaging. 

You should also talk to your provider about any symptoms that concern you.

Luckily there are common tests that can be used to determine if your symptoms are caused by a thyroid disorder. They include:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood tests
  • Imaging tests (like ultrasound)

Thyroid awareness

According to the American Thyroid Association, around 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, and 60 percent of those living with a thyroid condition are unaware of it. 

And since undiagnosed thyroid disease can put you at risk of serious medical conditions like cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and infertility, raising awareness is critical.

So talk to your doctor about thyroid health, check your thyroid at home, and share this information with others. You can share this article, post to your social media channels, or talk to your friends and family about thyroid health.

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