Your Thyroid Gland: 4 Things You Need to Know

The thyroid gland, a part of the endocrine (hormone) system, plays a major role in regulating the body’s metabolism according to MedlinePlus. The September 2015 Newsletter from the National Institutes of Health (NIH),  talks about this important but overlooked organ. Here’re four important facts about the thyroid gland:

  1. Nearly 1 in 20 Americans ages 12 and older has an under-active thyroid or hypothyroidism.
  2. A smaller number of people—about 1 in 100—has an over-active thyroid, called hyperthyroidism.
  3. Thyroid problems are most likely to occur in women or people over age 60.
  4. During pregnancy,  thyroid hormones can affect the health of both the mother and the developing baby.

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The thyroid is a small but powerful butterfly-shaped gland located at the front of your neck. It controls many of your body’s most important functions. The thyroid gland makes hormones that affect your breathing, heart rate, digestion, and body temperature. These systems speed up as thyroid hormone levels rise. But problems occur if the thyroid makes too much hormone or not enough.

Hyperthyroidism occurs when your thyroid gland makes more thyroid hormones than your body needs.  Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder, is the most common cause. Other causes include thyroid nodules, thyroiditis, consuming too much iodine and taking too much synthetic thyroid hormone.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (part of the NIH) states that to diagnose hyperthyroidism, your doctor will look at your symptoms, blood tests, and sometimes a thyroid scan. Treatment is with medicines, radioiodine therapy, or thyroid surgery. No single treatment works for everyone.

Head shot of woman scowling

Thyroid problems are most likely to occur in women or people over age 60.

Thyroid disorders can be hard to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to other conditions. “Hypothyroidism can be very subtle,” says NIH’s Dr. Monica Skarulis, an expert on the thyroid. If a thyroid disorder is suspected—maybe because of a weight change or fatigue—blood tests can help to confirm the diagnosis and find its cause.

Patients with under-active thyroids can be treated with artificial thyroid hormones. Over-active thyroids are often treated with medications that reduce hormone levels.

During pregnancy, thyroid hormones can affect the health of both the mother and the developing baby. Thyroid hormone levels sometimes need to be carefully monitored and adjusted, even if the expectant mother never had thyroid problems before. After pregnancy, some women have abnormal levels of thyroid hormone for a year or more.

The thyroid gland also can be affected by cancer. Thyroid cancer usually has no symptoms. It’s sometimes first noticed as a lump in the neck—although such bumps are more likely to be harmless nodules.

“Thyroid nodules are extremely common, whereas thyroid cancer is pretty rare,” Skarulis says. A doctor can determine if a nodule is cancerous by removing and examining a tiny piece of it. If it shows signs of cancer, the nodule or even the entire thyroid will be removed.

If you notice signs of thyroid disease, talk with a health professional. Based on your family history, symptoms, and medical exam, your provider can help you decide if further testing or treatment is needed.

Jay Harold thanks the NIH and National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) for providing this valuable information. Jay Harold’s goal is to bring you timely, and relevant information so you can make informed decisions concerning your health. Sometimes the medical information is difficult to understand, but these medical topics are important. Take the time to learn if you or a loved one are affected by a medical condition.

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