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Thyroid symptoms: when should you visit a doctor?

Fatigue is a possible symptom of an underactive thyroid

Although it is small in size, the thyroid is a vitally important gland because it produces the hormones that regulate your body’s metabolism. If your thyroid gland produces too many or too few of these hormones, your metabolism will change. This affects all of the body’s systems and can produce a wide variety of possible thyroid problems and symptoms. Both an underactive and an overactive thyroid can be potentially dangerous if left untreated so it’s a good idea to know what thyroid symptoms to look out for. It is beneficial to recognise the thyroid symptoms that could indicate a problem at an early stage so that you can consult your doctor and get the right therapy.


This article on thyroid symptoms and problems is written by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.


Underactive thyroid symptoms

Your thyroid gland is one of your neck glands, being located in your neck just below your voice box. An underactive thyroid gland, also known as hypothyroidism, arises when your thyroid fails to produce enough thyroid hormones to keep your metabolism in balance. Although hypothyroidism is most common in women over 50, you can experience underactive thyroid symptoms at any age. Common signs that your thyroid is underactive include:


  • Fatigue and sluggishness

  • Pale, dry skin

  • Constipation

  • Puffiness around the face, especially the eyes

  • A hoarse voice

  • Muscle aches and pains

  • Muscle weakness

  • Weight gain

  • Brittle fingernails and hair

  • Depression

  • Heavy menstrual periods

  • Increased sensitivity to cold temperatures


Typically, underactive thyroid symptoms develop gradually over time. Most of the time, you’ll experience a combination of the symptoms listed above, but sometimes you may not have any thyroid symptoms at all, or they will be too subtle for you to notice. Also, the specific thyroid symptoms you experience will depend on how long your body has been without the thyroid hormones, and how severe the hormone deficiency is in your body. Thyroid symptoms in a newborn baby born with an underactive gland tend to be more severe and may include:


  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)

  • A large protruding tongue

  • A puffy face

  • Frequent choking

  • Trouble feeding

Treating underactive thyroid symptoms

If you don’t get treatment for an underactive thyroid symptoms will become more severe. This can lead to several health problems including obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease. For this reason, it’s important to consult your doctor if you experience a combination of underactive thyroid symptoms and they persist for more than two or three weeks. The good news is that your doctor should easily be able to tell you if you have an underactive thyroid by arranging for you to have simple thyroid function tests. If you do get a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, your doctor will usually treat it by giving you a synthetic thyroid hormone. You will probably find this treatment is straightforward once your dose has been adjusted to treat your thyroid symptoms effectively.


Overactive thyroid symptoms

The opposite of hypothyroidism is hyperthyroidism and it occurs when your thyroid gland becomes overactive and releases too much of the various thyroid hormones. When this happens, your body’s metabolism typically increases rapidly. Thyroid symptoms that indicate that you may have hyperthyroidism include:


  • Sudden weight loss but your appetite remains the same

  • A heartbeat that is irregular or rapid

  • An increased appetite

  • Sweating

  • Nervousness or anxiety attacks

  • Irritability

  • Trembling hands

  • Increased sensitivity to heat

  • More frequent bowel movements

  • An enlarged thyroid gland

  • Light or absent menstrual periods

  • Fatigue

  • Insomnia


Again, the onset of thyroid symptoms is usually gradual, so that you may not realise there is anything wrong for weeks or months until the condition becomes more severe. If hyperthyroidism is left untreated, you may experience more severe thyroid symptoms including shortness of breath, chest pain, or weakness in your muscles.

Treating overactive thyroid symptoms

Although an overactive thyroid can be dangerous if you don’t do anything about it, treatment helps a lot once a diagnosis has been made. The problem can be getting that initial diagnosis of hyperthyroidism as the collection of overactive thyroid symptoms that are experienced resembled many other conditions. If you are taking medicines such as beta blockers to treat high blood pressure, these may mask your overactive thyroid symptoms causing a delay in diagnosis.


Treatment for an overactive thyroid problems usually involves anti-thyroid medications that block the levels of thyroid hormones in your blood. Radioactive iodine therapy may also be used to slow down the rate at which your thyroid gland produces hormones. If your hypothyroidism is severe and your thyroid symptoms are more pronounced, you may have to have part, or even all of your thyroid removed. This does involve a fairly major operation under general anaesthetic but you will find that your thyroid symptoms disappear very quickly, leaving you feeling so much better once you have spent a few days recovering from the surgery.


Kathryn Senior

Profile of the author

Dr Kathryn Senior is an acclaimed medical journalist who has written over 500 feature articles for leading international journals within The Lancet group. As Senior Writer at Freelance Copy she produces high quality scientific and medical content for websites and printed publications for companies and organisations in the health, medical and pharmaceutical sectors. 


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