What is hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)?
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) is a medical condition where the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone.
The thyroid gland is located in the neck, near the base of the throat. It makes hormones that help control some of your body’s metabolic processes, such as heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and weight.
What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)?
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can develop over many years without showing any symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they may be varied and can include:
- being unable to tolerate the cold
- weight gain
- puffy and pale face
- brittle hair and nails, thinning hair
- dry, cool skin
- muscle pain
- poor attention span or memory
- slow heart rate
- heavier than normal periods
Some people can have symptoms of hypothyroidism without any abnormality in their hormone levels. At other times, these symptoms may have different causes. If you are concerned about any of these symptoms, see your doctor.
What causes hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)?
Other common causes of hypothyroidism include:
- surgery that removes some or all of the thyroid
- radiation therapy
- treatment for an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
- some medicines, including lithium
How is hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) diagnosed?
Your doctor will check your neck to see if your thyroid is enlarged or has nodules, and will look for other signs of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), such as a slow heart rate.
To diagnose hypothyroidism, they will do a blood test to measure the level of your thyroid hormones.
How is hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) treated?
If you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), you will most likely be treated with a medicine to replace the thyroid hormone. This medicine is a synthetic version of the hormone thyroxine, and in most cases you will need to take it for the rest of your life.
Once treatment has begun, it may take some time to get the dose right for you. Further adjustments may be needed as time goes by, so your hormone levels will need to be checked regularly.
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Last reviewed: November 2020