Your thyroid is a small gland shaped like a butterfly at the front of your neck. As part of the endocrine system, it creates a variety of hormones that release into your body. Your thyroid health plays a major role in everything from your metabolism to your mental acuity, so it’s essential to keep it in top working order.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, four main things could go wrong with your thyroid. Here is what you need to know.
An underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism, is a common and easily treatable condition. It can be caused by anything from inflammation to an autoimmune disorder. Symptoms include increased sensitivity to cold, weight gain, dry skin, joint pain or stiffness, and menstrual irregularities. Underactive thyroid is typically treated with medication, along with treating any underlying causes.
An overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, is also common and treatable. Causes range from benign tumors to overconsumption of iodine. Symptoms may include weight loss, shaking, hot flashes, irritability, and menstrual difficulties. It is most commonly treated with medications, and any underlying causes must also be addressed.
A goiter is a medical term for a swollen or enlarged thyroid. Worldwide, the most common cause for goiters is a lack of iodine. But in the United States, most salt is iodized, and goiters are somewhat rare. Here, the leading causes include inflammation, benign nodules, or autoimmune disorders. A large goiter could obstruct the airway, causing breathing difficulties and potentially requiring surgery. However, most goiters are treated with medications.
Rare and most often treatable, thyroid cancer typically shows no symptoms in its earliest stages. As it grows, it can cause hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and a feeling that your shirt collars are too tight. Most thyroid cancers grow slowly, though a few types are more aggressive. Thyroid cancer is usually treated with surgery, but other treatments, such as radiation or chemotherapy, may be needed for faster-growing or more advanced cancers.
Thyroid health screening
Because your thyroid is responsible for so many different bodily functions, it’s important to keep it working in top condition. In general, you should have your thyroid screened every five years, starting at age 35. If you have symptoms or a family history of thyroid disease, you may need to be screened sooner and/or more often.
The baseline screening for thyroid functioning is known as a TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) test. If you have specific symptoms or your TSH level is abnormal, your doctor may order additional tests. These may include blood tests known as T3, T4, or thyroid antibody tests, as well as a thyroid scan and/or ultrasound. If thyroid cancer is suspected, you may need to undergo a biopsy.
Protecting your thyroid health
Prevention is always best. While it is impossible to fully prevent thyroid conditions from forming, you can lower your risks by following a few simple steps:
- Thyroid collar. Always ask for this protective device when getting dental or other X-rays involving your head, neck, or chest.
- Quit smoking. The chemicals in cigarette smoke can impact your thyroid functioning.
- Neck check. In front of a mirror, tip your head slightly back and take a sip of water. As you swallow, look for any unusual bumps on the front of your neck. Then run your finger down the middle of your neck, top to bottom, feeling for any lumps. This is not an entirely accurate screening, but if you notice anything, it’s worth telling your doctor.
Other conditions, such as celiac disease, can also raise your risk for thyroid disorders. Get your overall health as balanced as possible to reduce your chances of developing a thyroid problem.