How to tell if you have an overactive thyroid

January 28, 2022
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Given its size, the thyroid—a small butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck—wields a lot of power over how well your body functions and you feel.

According to Dr. Ibitoro Osakwe, Chief and fellowship program director of the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes at Baystate Medical Center, the thyroid produces thyroid hormone , thyroxine and triiodothyronine (T4 and T3), that regulate the body’s metabolism—the rate at which the body produces energy from nutrients and oxygen. Thyroid hormone affects critical body functions, such as heart rate, cholesterol levels, mood, bone density, and body weight. Every cell, tissue, and organ in the body is impacted by how much thyroid hormone is or isn’t produced.”

One of the most common thyroid problems, says Osakwe, is an overactive thyroid, also called hyperthyroidism.

Who is at risk of hyperthyroidism?

Hyperthyroidism can affect anyone — men, women, infants, teens, and the elderly. It usually develops with age, but rarely, you may be born with it, usually when your mom has a type of hyperthyroidism called Graves’ disease in pregnancy. While anyone can have hyperthyroidism, it most often occurs in women, often after menopause.

Other factors that put you at higher risk of developing a hyperthyroidism include:

  • A family history of thyroid disease
  • Certain medical conditions including Type 1 diabetes and pernicious anemia (autoimmune diseases)
  • A diet high in iodine or use of medication or supplements high in iodine
  • Being over age 60, especially so for women
  • Previous history of a thyroid disease
  • Having been pregnant or had a baby within the past 6 months.

Hyperthyroid symptoms

With excess thyroid hormone, metabolism in every system in the body speeds up, leading to a variety of symptoms. Sometimes, hyperthyroidism develops slowly over months or even years, so it is easy to overlook the symptoms. While symptoms vary from person to person, common ones include:

  • Feelings of anxiety, irritability, and nervousness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A racing or uneven heartbeat
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Larger appetite than usual
  • Sensitivity to heat
  • Sweating
  • More frequent bowel movements
  • Thinning skin
  • Changes to your period
  • Tremors
  • Vision problems
  • An enlarged thyroid (goiter)

Osakwe says, “If you’re experiencing two or more of these symptoms, you should schedule a visit with your doctor.”

Testing for hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism is diagnosed through a simple blood test to check your thyroid hormone levels.

In some cases, imaging tests, such thyroid scan may be used.

How is hyperthyroidism treated?

Treatment for hyperthyroidism is also very individual. Depending upon a patient’s age, physical condition, severity of the disease, underlying cause and personal preference, potential treatment options may include:

  • Daily beta blocker pills reduce tremors, rapid heartbeat, and anxiety
  • Anti-thyroid medication, typically taken for a year or more
  • Radioactive iodine taken as a liquid or capsule
  • Surgery to remove part or most of the thyroid gland (done in rare cases)

Osakwe notes, “For some patients, hyperthyroidism medication will need to be taken for the rest of their life to keep the disease under control. Your doctor will check your TSH levels at appropriate intervals and make adjustments based on the findings.” Osakwe emphasizes that individuals with hyperthyroidism must be careful not to ingest too much iodine. She urges patients to speak to their doctor about their diet and any supplements or vitamins they are taking that might impact their treatment or how well their medication works.

Learn more about thyroid problems and treatment. 

Could it Be My Thyroid?

Dr. Ibitoro Osakwe discusses how the thyroid gland works, and how thyroid disorders and thyroid cancers are diagnosed and treated.

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