Home Medicine Understanding Hypothyroidism: Causes & Care

Understanding Hypothyroidism: Causes & Care


Are you experiencing fatigue, weight gain, or sensitivity to cold? These could be symptoms of hypothyroidism, a condition that occurs when your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. Hypothyroidism, also known as underactive thyroid, can affect people of all ages, including infants and children.

Left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to various health problems such as high cholesterol and heart issues. That’s why it’s important to recognize the symptoms and seek medical attention if you suspect hypothyroidism.

Diagnosis of underactive thyroid is typically done through blood tests to measure thyroid hormone levels. Once diagnosed, treatment involves taking thyroid hormone medicine to restore hormone levels to normal. This can help alleviate symptoms and prevent further complications.

Symptoms of Hypothyroidism

The symptoms of hypothyroidism can vary depending on the severity of the condition. In the early stages, symptoms may not be noticeable, or they may be mistaken for signs of aging. However, as the metabolism slows down, more noticeable symptoms may develop. These can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Weight gain
  • Hoarse voice
  • Muscle weakness
  • Menstrual cycle irregularities
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Depression
  • Memory problems

Infants with underactive thyroid may exhibit feeding problems, poor growth, constipation, and other signs. It is essential to be aware of these symptoms and consult a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment.

“The symptoms of hypothyroidism can vary depending on the severity of the condition.”

Causes of Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism can be caused by various factors. The most common cause is an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s disease, where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. Other causes include:

  • Thyroid surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid)
  • Certain medications (such as lithium)
  • Problems present at birth (such as a missing or dysfunctional thyroid gland)
  • Pituitary disorders

Pregnancy can also lead to hypothyroidism, which can have implications for both the mother and baby. Additionally, not having enough iodine in the diet can contribute to hypothyroidism, although this is rare in the United States due to iodine fortification in salt.

Risk Factors for Hypothyroidism

Certain factors can increase the risk of developing hypothyroidism. It is important to be aware of these risk factors and discuss them with a healthcare provider to ensure early detection and appropriate management.

1. Gender

Women are more likely than men to develop underactive thyroid. The condition is especially common among women over the age of 60, although it can occur at any age.

2. Family History

Having a family history of thyroid disease increases the risk of underactive thyroid. If a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, has been diagnosed with a thyroid disorder, it is important to inform the healthcare provider.

3. Autoimmune Diseases

Individuals with autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes or celiac disease, have a higher risk of developing underactive thyroid. These conditions involve the immune system attacking healthy tissues, including the thyroid gland.

4. Previous Treatment for Hyperthyroidism

Individuals who have received treatment for hyperthyroidism, a condition characterized by an overactive thyroid, may develop hypothyroidism as a result. This can occur due to the treatment’s impact on the thyroid gland’s functionality.

5. Radiation Therapy

Undergoing radiation therapy to the neck or chest area, particularly for the treatment of cancers, can increase the risk of hypothyroidism. The radiation can damage the thyroid gland, leading to decreased hormone production.

6. History of Thyroid Surgery

Individuals who have undergone thyroid surgery, such as partial or complete removal of the thyroid gland, may be at a higher risk of developing underactive thyroid. The surgery can impact the gland’s ability to produce adequate thyroid hormones.

By understanding these risk factors, individuals can take proactive steps to prevent or manage hypothyroidism. Regular check-ups and open communication with a healthcare provider are important for early detection and appropriate treatment. Remember, knowledge is power when it comes to safeguarding your thyroid health!

Complications of Hypothyroidism

If left untreated, underactive thyroid can lead to various complications. It is important to recognize these potential complications and seek appropriate medical attention.

Enlargement of the Thyroid Gland (Goiter)

A goiter is the abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland. It can occur as a result of the thyroid gland’s attempt to produce more hormones. While a goiter is not typically painful, it can cause discomfort or difficulty swallowing if it grows large enough. Regular monitoring and appropriate treatment can help manage goiter.

Heart Problems

Untreated hypothyroidism can affect the cardiovascular system, leading to heart problems. It can cause an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and heart failure. Monitoring and treating underactive thyroid can help reduce the risk of heart-related complications.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a condition characterized by nerve damage in the extremities, such as the hands and feet. Hypothyroidism can contribute to the development of peripheral neuropathy, leading to tingling, burning sensations, and muscle weakness. Timely treatment of hypothyroidism can help alleviate or prevent these symptoms.

Infertility and Birth Defects

Hypothyroidism, if left untreated, can impact fertility in both men and women. It can disrupt the hormonal balance necessary for reproductive functions. Additionally, untreated underactive thyroid during pregnancy can increase the risk of birth defects in babies. Regular monitoring and appropriate treatment are essential for managing hypothyroidism during reproductive years.

Myxedema Coma

Myxedema coma is a rare, life-threatening complication of severe underactive thyroid. It occurs when the body’s thyroid levels become extremely low, leading to symptoms such as decreased consciousness, low body temperature, and respiratory distress. Immediate medical attention is critical in managing myxedema coma.

High Cholesterol Levels and Heart Disease

Hypothyroidism is often associated with high cholesterol levels, which can increase the risk of heart disease and heart failure. Treating underactive thyroid can help normalize cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular complications.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism can be diagnosed through blood tests that measure thyroid hormone levels. These tests help determine if the thyroid gland is producing an adequate amount of thyroid hormones to support normal bodily functions. The primary hormone that is tested is called thyroxine (T4), as well as thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which is produced by the pituitary gland and plays a crucial role in regulating thyroid hormone production.

Doctors use these blood test results, along with the evaluation of symptoms and medical history, to make an accurate diagnosis of underactive thyroid. In some cases, additional tests may be necessary to identify the underlying cause of the condition.

If hypothyroidism is diagnosed, the main treatment involves taking thyroid hormone replacement medication. The most commonly prescribed medication is levothyroxine, a synthetic form of the hormone thyroxine (T4). Levothyroxine is taken orally and works by replenishing the deficient thyroid hormones in the body.

It is important to follow the prescribed dosage and take the medication consistently. Regular follow-up appointments with a healthcare provider are necessary to monitor thyroid hormone levels and adjust the dosage if needed. It is strongly advised not to stop taking the medication without medical guidance, as this can lead to a worsening of symptoms and potential complications.

While medication is the primary treatment for underactive thyroid, lifestyle changes can also play a role in supporting thyroid health. Maintaining a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients, particularly iodine, selenium, and zinc, can help support optimal thyroid function. Managing stress levels, practicing relaxation techniques, and getting regular exercise are also beneficial for overall thyroid health.

Hypothyroidism and Pregnancy

Hypothyroidism can present unique challenges during pregnancy. If left untreated, it can increase the risk of pregnancy complications such as pregnancy loss, premature delivery, and preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy). Pregnant women with hypothyroidism may require higher doses of thyroid hormone medication, so close monitoring by a healthcare provider is crucial. Proper management and treatment of underactive thyroid during pregnancy can help ensure the health and well-being of both the mother and the baby.

hypothyroidism during pregnancy

Lifestyle Factors and Hypothyroidism

While lifestyle factors cannot directly cause hypothyroidism, certain habits can influence thyroid health. It is essential to understand the impact of lifestyle choices on hypothyroidism and take steps to support thyroid function.

Maintaining a balanced diet is crucial for overall health and can contribute to optimal thyroid function. Including foods that provide adequate iodine, such as seafood, dairy products, and iodized salt, can help ensure proper thyroid hormone production. Consulting with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian can help create a personalized diet plan that supports your thyroid health.

Managing stress levels is also important for individuals with underactive thyroid. Chronic stress can affect hormone levels and disrupt the delicate balance of the endocrine system. Practicing stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and regular exercise can help manage stress and support overall well-being.

Additionally, regular exercise has been shown to have positive effects on thyroid function. Engaging in physical activity can stimulate thyroid hormone production, improve metabolism, and support weight management. However, it is important to engage in exercise suitable for your health condition and consult with a healthcare provider before starting a new exercise program.


What are the risk factors for underactive thyroid?

Risk factors for underactive thyroid include being female, having a family history of thyroid disease, previous treatment for hyperthyroidism, radiation therapy to the neck or chest, and a history of thyroid surgery.

What complications can arise from untreated hypothyroidism?

Complications of untreated underactive thyroid can include goiter, heart problems, peripheral neuropathy, infertility, birth defects in babies born to mothers with thyroid disease, myxedema coma, and high cholesterol levels.

How is hypothyroidism diagnosed and treated?

Hypothyroidism is diagnosed through blood tests that measure thyroid hormone levels. Treatment involves taking thyroid hormone medicine, usually levothyroxine, to replace the deficient hormones.

What are the considerations for underactive thyroid during pregnancy?

Untreated underactive thyroid during pregnancy can increase the risk of pregnancy complications. Close monitoring and proper management with higher doses of thyroid hormone medication may be necessary.

Can lifestyle factors affect hypothyroidism?

While lifestyle factors cannot cause underactive thyroid, maintaining a balanced diet, managing stress levels, regular exercise, and avoiding smoking can support thyroid health.