There are a surprising number of thyroid disease symptoms that can sneak up on you — here’s what to look for.

The thyroid gland in your neck may be tiny, but it does a big job. It’s responsible for regulating many of your body’s processes. Your thyroid works by releasing two hormones, T3 and T4, that determine your metabolism, or how your body uses energy, as well as influence your heart rate and your body temperature.

When your thyroid is out of whack, it can make you feel rotten all over. Unfortunately, the symptoms can be vague and start slowly, so you might not even notice them at first. According to the American Thyroid Association, up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware they have it. Thyroid problems are much more common in women, who are up to eight times more likely to experience them than men. Leaving thyroid issues untreated can lead to other complications, such as heart disease, osteoporosis and infertility.

Your thyroid can be either underactive (hypothyroidism) or overactive (hyperthyroidism). This is how they differ:

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Hypothyroidism

An underactive thyroid means it isn’t releasing enough of the hormones your body needs to perform its functions. The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease, in which your immune system attacks the thyroid and affects its proper functioning. Other causes, such as an inflammation of the thyroid (thyroiditis), can also make it become underactive.

As your thyroid slows down, so do other processes in your body, causing these symptoms:

As this list shows, hypothyroidism has many nonspecific symptoms that may or may not manifest at the same time. The good news is that once you or your doctor suspects you have hypothyroidism, it only requires a simple blood test to diagnose. And, although there is no cure, it is highly treatable by taking thyroid medication to re-establish the right hormone balance and restore proper function throughout the body.

Hyperthyroidism

An overactive thyroid means it is working overtime and releasing too much of its hormones, which can cause your body’s processes to accelerate. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, over 70 percent of hyperthyroidism cases are caused by Graves’ disease, another autoimmune condition — but this time, it causes the thyroid to rev up instead of slow down. Symptoms include:

  • Unplanned weight loss
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Tremors in hands or fingers
  • Less frequent or lighter menstrual periods
  • Increased sensitivity to heat
  • Increased sweating
  • More frequent bowel movements
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increased appetite
  • Thin skin or brittle hair

More severe symptoms include a goiter, which is an enlarged thyroid, or issues with your eyes. A disorder known as Graves’ ophthalmopathy can cause your eyes to bulge out of their sockets, with accompanying symptoms such as redness, dryness, light sensitivity or blurry vision.

Hyperthyroidism is diagnosed with a blood test as well as a physical exam. Several treatment options exist, including medications that can help correct your thyroid function, called anti-thyroid drugs, and beta blockers, which help control symptoms. Surgery to remove part of the thyroid may also be an option, so talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan for you.

“Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can be subtle, but they are easy to diagnose by measuring the level of thyroid hormone in the blood,” said Mark S. Swanson, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and head and neck surgeon at the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Keck Medicine of USC. “Once diagnosed, treatment can improve fatigue and overall well-being. If you feel any of the symptoms, it is good to discuss with your physician about a screening test.”

By Tina Donvito

Concerned about a thyroid issue? Make an appointment with one of our specialists at Keck Medicine of USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.