The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists estimates that 30 million Americans have some kind of thyroid disorder. That's a surprising number — but even more startling is that up to 50% of people with thyroid disease aren't even aware that they have it.
"It’s common for people to chalk up some thyroid symptoms — fatigue, irritability, sleep problems — to general life stress," says Tiffany Hor, MD, an endocrinologist at Rush.
Such nonspecific symptoms are often easy to ignore, but the consequences of postponing diagnosis and treatment can be serious: Over the long term, untreated thyroid issues can lead to health complications ranging from an increased risk of osteoporosis to cardiovascular issues.
First, a crash course on what your thyroid does. A small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the front of your neck, the thyroid produces hormones that control the rate of various processes in your body, including metabolism, body temperature, muscle strength, appetite and more.
If your thyroid isn't producing enough hormones, you have hypothyroidism. And if it's producing too much, you have hyperthyroidism.
What to watch for
Thyroid symptoms vary widely, according to Hor. "Some people with thyroid dysfunction have no symptoms at all, while some experience dramatic symptoms," she says. Check with your physician if you're experiencing one or more of these signs:
1. Changes in energy level and mood.
Anxiety, restlessness, irritability and insomnia can signal hyperthyroidism, while depression, fatigue, low energy and sleepiness could be signs of hypothyroidism.
2. Temperature tolerance issues.
People who are hyperthyroid often have trouble tolerating heat, while those who are hypothyroid might feel cold no matter how many layers they put on.
3. Weight fluctuation.
Hyperthyroidism may cause unexplained weight loss and hypothyroidism can cause weight gain — even though your calorie consumption and activity levels haven't changed.
4. Changes in bowel habits.
More frequent or loose stools might be a sign of hyperthyroidism; constipation can mean hypothyroidism.
5. Menstrual irregularities.
Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can cause irregular menstrual cycles by affecting their frequency and flow.
Nonspecific symptoms are often easy to ignore, but the consequences of postponing diagnosis and treatment [of a thyroid disorder] can be serious.
Simple test, straightforward treatment
The good news: Most thyroid problems are easy to diagnose with a simple blood test that measures your level of thyroid hormone. "The test is very reliable and very sensitive," says Hor.
Treatments are often very straightforward as well. Hypothyroidism is frequently treated with an inexpensive synthetic thyroid hormone that's taken orally and is usually very well tolerated.
Hyperthyroidism treatments are more varied but might include 12 to 18 months of an oral medication or a one-time dose of radioactive iodine (after which patients actually develop hypothyroidism and need to take synthetic thyroid hormone).
Bottom line: "If you’re feeling fine and your weight is stable, there's no need to get checked," says Hor. "But if you notice one or more of these symptoms, or if you have a family history of thyroid dysfunction, ask your primary care doctor whether you should be tested."