Thyroid Disease in Women: Know the Symptoms

Thyroid disorders are much more common in women than in men, but they're often missed or confused with other conditions. Do you know the symptoms?

 

The thyroid is a small but powerful gland in your neck. It produces hormones that control your metabolism, or the way your body uses energy. It also influences your heart rate, body temperature, bones, digestion and reproductive system. When the thyroid hormones get out of balance, it can have profound effects on your health.

Thyroid disorders are much more common in women than in men. Yet the symptoms of thyroid disease are often overlooked or confused with other conditions. As a result, many women don't get the treatment they need. This puts them at risk for serious problems such as high cholesterol, heart disease and infertility.

What are the most common thyroid disorders?

Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can occur at any age, but it becomes more common as a woman ages, especially after age 50. It occurs when the thyroid doesn't make enough thyroid hormones. It may not cause noticeable symptoms at first, but as thyroid hormone levels continue to drop the metabolism slows. A woman will start to feel weak and run down and may have other symptoms such as weight gain and constipation.

Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) is most common in women between ages 20 and 40. It occurs when the thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone. A rising hormone level causes the body to speed up. This can cause a woman to feel jittery or irritable, lose weight without trying and have trouble sleeping.

Thyroid nodules sometimes grow on the thyroid gland. Nodules usually don't cause symptoms, but a doctor may feel a nodule during a careful physical exam. As a nodule grows it may be felt as a lump in the front of the neck.

Most thyroid nodules are harmless. Fewer than one in 10 is cancerous, but any nodule should be checked. Even a benign nodule may sometimes need to be removed.

How do thyroid disorders affect women?
Thyroid disorders can have a range of effects on a woman's sexual and reproductive health across her lifespan.

  • Puberty. During puberty, hyperthyroidism can cause early menstruation (before age 9). It may also cause delayed menstruation and delayed growth.
  • Infertility. Thyroid disorders can cause irregular or skipped periods, which can make it hard to get pregnant. They also raise the risk of miscarriage.
  • Pregnancy. During pregnancy, untreated thyroid disorders raise the risk of high blood pressure, anemia, miscarriage and low birth weight. They may also have long-term effects on the baby.
  • Postpartum depression. Some women develop a thyroid problem after delivery called postpartum thyroid dysfunction. It causes fatigue, low mood and irritability, and it may be linked to postpartum depression.
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Hypothyroidism can cause symptoms similar to PMS, including weight gain, bloating and depressed mood.
  • Menopause. Thyroid disorders can cause premature menopause (before age 40). Symptoms of hyperthyroidism can mimic those of menopause, such as hot flashes and insomnia.

What are the symptoms of thyroid disorders?

Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) may cause:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain from fluid retention
  • Low tolerance of cold
  • Dry skin and dry, brittle hair and nails
  • Forgetfulness and trouble concentrating
  • Irregular or heavy periods
  • Constipation
  • Miscarriages or infertility

Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) may cause:

  • Nervousness
  • Sweating
  • Low tolerance of heat
  • Trembling hands
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • More frequent bowel movements
  • Light or absent menstrual periods
  • Muscle weakness
  • Goiter (an enlarged thyroid gland)

Thyroid nodules often cause no symptoms, but they may be felt as a lump in the front of the neck below the Adam's apple. A cancerous nodule may grow quickly, feel hard and cause:

  • Pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes under the jaw
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing

If you have any symptoms of a thyroid disorder, see your doctor. Thyroid disorders can be treated successfully, usually with medication or surgery.