12 things to know about your thyroid

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More than 20 million Americans have some sort of thyroid disorder, and more than 60% of them don’t know it.

“The thyroid affects many bodily functions, including weight, temperature and even mood,” notes Dr. Audrey Atkins, a medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Many signs and symptoms can seem unrelated, making it hard to realize that the thyroid is the root cause.”

Things you need to know about your thryoid

Dr. Atkins: Here are some key facts to know about your thyroid:

  1. The thyroid is small but mighty. Located in the front of your neck, the butterfly-shaped gland measures about 2 inches across. It influences nearly every cell and organ system in your body. It secretes hormones into the bloodstream that are essential in regulating your metabolism, which is the rate at which your body converts food and oxygen into energy.
  2. Your thyroid produces 2 primary hormones: thyroxine (T4) is the primary hormone. Triiodothyronine (T3) is produced in smaller amounts but has a greater effect on your metabolism. It also produces Calcitonin, a hormone which helps control the amount of calcium in your blood.
  3. Your thyroid needs iodine to produce hormones. The recommended daily allowance of iodine for most adults is 150 mcg. You get iodine from iodized salt, as well as other foods, such as fish and other seafood and dairy products. An iodine supplement is not recommended unless directed by your doctor.
  4. Normally you can’t feel the thyroid gland under your skin. But if it becomes enlarged, you might be able to detect it. If it continues to swell, it can cause a goiter to develop.
  5. Your thyroid does not have to become enlarged to cause problems. It may be normal in size and appearance but still produce too much or too little hormone.
  6. Females have more thyroid problems than males. About 1 in 5 females will have a thyroid issue by the age of 60 males can have thyroid problems, but it is less common.
  7. Females are more likely to develop hypothyroidism after menopause than earlier in their lives.
  8. Hyperthyroidism, which occurs when the thyroid makes too much hormone, causes symptoms like unexplained weight loss, increased appetite, rapid heartbeat, anxiety, and shakiness. The condition is relatively rare, and affects about 1% of the U.S. population.
  9. Hypothyroidism is more common, affecting about 5 out of 100 people 12 and older. It is the result of too little hormone production. Symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, depression, cold sensitivity, and joint and muscle pain.
  10. Symptoms of thyroid cancer can include a lump or swelling in the neck, hoarseness, or loss of voice, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and trouble breathing and swallowing. Many thyroid cancers do not require immediate treatment because they have a low risk of growing or spreading. Lumps, or nodules on your thyroid are common among adults, but the vast majority are benign. Only a doctor can determin the risk of these conditions. Always consult with your doctor if you think you may have thyroid cancer or notice any lumps, nodules, or changes on your neck or lymph nodes.
  11. You can live without a thyroid gland. If you develop a problem with your thyroid that requires surgery to remove it, such as thyroid cancer, you’ll need to take synthetic thyroid hormone for the rest of your life.
  12. There’s no standard screening process for thyroid disease. Experts don’t agree on whether healthy people with no symptoms or signs of thyroid issues should be screened. Some suggest routine screening after age 60. There are a number of tests to evaluate thyroid function that your doctor may recommend.

If you notice any changes or symptoms

Dr. Atkins: If you do experience any troublesome symptoms and wonder if they might be the result of a thyroid problem, see your doctor.

More from Dr. Atkins on WellTuned

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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