Early Warning Signs of Thyroid Problems and When You Should See a Doctor

Thyroid function is important for your body as it can affect your physical energy, temperature, weight, and mood.

Depending on how little or how much thyroid hormone (more on this later) is being produced by the thyroid, you might feel restless or tired or potentially lose or gain weight. At the more severe end of conditions, thyroid dysfunction could result in cancer.

Thyroid disease is common, especially among women and older people, and most issues can be detected and treated, the CDC says.

Here, health experts highlight the symptoms of thyroid problems and when you need to see a doctor.

What Is the Thyroid and What Does It Do?

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the lower portion of the front of the neck, just above the collarbone.

The thyroid affects various organs in the body, Dr. Mary Vouyiouklis Kellis, an endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic, told Newsweek. “It can control temperature regulation, metabolism, gastrointestinal health, heart health, and bone and brain health.”

It is one of the body’s endocrine glands, which make hormones. Its primary function is to make thyroid hormones, which are released into the blood and carried to every tissue in the body.

Thyroid hormones regulate the rate of many activities across the body, from how fast you burn calories to how fast your heart beats, helping the body use energy, stay warm, and keep your organs, including the brain, heart, and muscles, in working order.

Types of Thyroid Problems

Thyroid issues broadly fall within two categories of disorders—abnormal function and abnormal growth (nodules) in the gland, explains the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Functional disorders see the thyroid produce either too little or too much thyroid hormones. When nodules in the thyroid are too large, they can sometimes put pressure on the neck and cause swallowing, breathing, or speaking issues. The thyroid typically functions normally even when nodules are present in the gland, says the CDC.

Below is a summary of different types of thyroid problems, as outlined by MedlinePlus, a website of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

  • Hyperthyroidism: When your thyroid produces more thyroid hormones than your body needs. thyroid nodules that produce excess thyroid hormone (toxic nodules)
  • Hypothyroidism: When your thyroid does not produce sufficient thyroid hormones.
  • Thyroid nodules: Lumps in the thyroid gland. “Benign nodules in the thyroid gland are common and do not usually cause serious health problems. These nodules occur when the cell growth within the nodule is abnormal,” says the CDC.
  • Goiter: An enlargement of the thyroid gland.
  • Thyroiditis: Swelling of the thyroid. This inflammation can result in thyroid dysfunction that typically resolves on its own, said Vouyiouklis Kellis.
  • Thyroid cancer.

A 3D illustration of the thyroid gland. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland whose main function is to produce thyroid hormones, which regulate various activities across the body.
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What Causes Thyroid Problems?

Autoimmunity

There are multiple causes of thyroid problems, but one of the most common causes is autoimmunity.

Vouyiouklis Kellis said in the case of Graves’ disease, which is hyperthyroidism due to autoimmunity, TSI (thyroid stimulating immunoglobulin) antibodies stimulate the body to make thyroid hormone.

In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, “thyroid peroxidase antibody elevation” can affect thyroid function and may lead to an underactive thyroid, the endocrinologist said.

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the U.S., according to the American Thyroid Association.

Thyroid problems are more common in women partially due to the autoimmune nature of many thyroid disorders, explains a 1998 study in the peer-reviewed journal Medical Clinics of North America.

“Hypothyroidism and thyroid nodules occur frequently in both pre-and-post-menopausal women. Pregnancy is also associated with changes in thyroid function,” the study said.

Certain Medications

Some medications can result in hypothyroidism, said Vouyiouklis Kellis. Medicines such as amiodarone, lithium, interferon alpha, and interleukin-2 can prevent the thyroid from producing hormones normally, says the ATA.

Radiation Treatment

Vouyiouklis Kellis said hypothyroidism can also be due to a history of radiation to the neck, such as in patients with Hodgkin’s disease, lymphoma or cancers of the head or neck, who are treated with radiation. All such patients can lose part or all of their thyroid function, the ATA says.

Some people with thyroid nodules, thyroid cancer, or Graves’ disease may also be treated with radioactive iodine (I-131) for the purpose of destroying the thyroid gland or require the surgical removal of their thyroid.

Too Much or Too Little Iodine

The thyroid needs iodine to make thyroid hormones and the right amount is needed to keep thyroid hormone production in balance. Too much iodine can cause or worsen hypothyroidism, the ATA explains.

Pituitary Gland Damage

The pituitary gland regulates thyroid hormone production. So if it is damaged by a tumor, radiation, or surgery, the gland may no longer be able to manage thyroid hormone production and the thyroid may stop producing enough hormones, according to the ATA.

Congenital Conditions

Some babies may be born either without a thyroid or with one that is partially formed or may not have the thyroid in the right place. Some may be born with thyroid cells or enzymes that don’t function correctly.

Rare Disorders Impacting Thyroid

In some patients, diseases deposit abnormal substances in the thyroid and impair its function. For example, amyloidosis can deposit amyloid protein, sarcoidosis can deposit granulomas, and hemochromatosis can deposit iron in the thyroid, the ATA explains.

A woman receiving radiation therapy.
A woman receiving radiation therapy at a hospital. Some thyroid issues may be caused by radiation treatment.
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What Are the Symptoms of Thyroid Problems?

Below are some possible symptoms of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, as outlined by Vouyiouklis Kellis.

Hyperthyroidism

  • Weight loss
  • Heat intolerance
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Changes in periods in women

Hypothyroidism

  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Swelling
  • Hair loss
  • Changes in cholesterol levels
  • Dry skin
  • Change in your nails.

Thyroid Cancer

There are four main types of thyroid cancer, which differ in how aggressive they are. They include papillary, follicular, medullary, and anaplastic, with papillary thyroid cancer being the most common, explains the National Cancer Institute.

You are at greater risk for thyroid cancer if you meet any of the following criteria, as outlined by MedlinePlus, a website of the National Library of Medicine.

  • You are aged between 25 and 65.
  • You are a woman.
  • You are Asian.
  • You have a family member who has had thyroid disease.
  • You have had radiation treatments to your head or neck.

Thyroid cancer is diagnosed by doctors through physical exams, thyroid tests and other blood and imaging tests as well as a biopsy(taking a tissue sample for examination).

When To See a Doctor for Thyroid Problems

Below are some signs that you should see a doctor for thyroid issues, as advised by Vouyiouklis Kellis:

  • New symptoms that won’t go away: If you are experiencing any new symptoms that are not improving, such as excessive fatigue, weight changes, heart rate changes or changes in periods or bowel movements, it is recommended you see your healthcare provider for further evaluation.
  • Infertility issues and menstrual changes: If you are having changes in your periods or if you have infertility issues, it is important to see your doctor for evaluation.
  • Swelling or lumps: If you feel any lumps or bumps in the neck, this may signal that you have thyroid nodules and a neck evaluation is recommended.

A doctor examining a woman's thyroid glands.
A doctor examining a woman’s thyroid glands at a clinic. Thyroid problems are common, especially among women and older people.
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Treatment for Thyroid Problems

Treatment for thyroid issues depends on the type and severity of your conditions as well as other variables, including your age and overall health.

Below are what treatments generally look like for different thyroid conditions, as outlined by the CDC.

Benign Nodules

Most benign nodules require no treatment. Those with benign nodules are typically advised to have periodic follow-up examinations.

Hypothyroidism

This condition usually requires only replacement of thyroid hormone by taking a daily tablet at a dose adjusted for the production of normal thyroid hormone levels.

Autoimmune Thyroiditis

This disorder may cause hypothyroidism but usually does not cause symptoms that require treatment unless hypothyroidism develops. In such cases, thyroid hormone replacement is required.

Hyperthyroidism

Treatment may entail antithyroid drugs, radioactive iodine-131 or in rare cases, thyroid surgery.

Thyroid Cancer

Patients are initially treated with thyroid surgery, with many receiving further treatment with iodine-131. Thyroid cancer patients require lifelong thyroid hormone replacement. The CDC says with treatment, the cure rate for thyroid cancer—which is “much less common” than benign nodules— is over 90 percent.

A man touching thyroid area.
A man touching his thyroid gland area with his hand. You should see a doctor if you feel any lumps or swelling on the neck.
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