How to Recognize a Thyroid Issue in Women

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland near the throat. It produces thyroid hormone, which regulates heart rate, body temperature, and how quickly the body burns calories.

Thyroid problems occur when the thyroid makes too much hormone (hyperthyroidism) or too little hormone (hypothyroidism). This causes metabolism and heart rate to speed up or slow down.

Autoimmune diseases, such as Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s disease, are the most common cause of thyroid problems. In these cases, antibodies produced by your immune system disrupt the thyroid’s hormone production process.

Other causes of thyroid problems include thyroid cancer, benign tumors, goiter, and iodine deficiency. (Iodine is an important building block in thyroid hormone production.)

Even without an underlying medical problem, the thyroid sometimes makes too much or too little hormone. Doctors aren’t certain why this happens, but age plays a role.

Thyroid problems in women are more common than in men. This is because autoimmune disorders are more common in women.

One in eight women will develop thyroid problems in their lifetime. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to develop a thyroid issue.

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What Are the Symptoms of Thyroid Problems in Females?

The symptoms of a thyroid issue depend on whether the thyroid gland is producing too much or too little thyroid hormone.

Some women with a thyroid problem may only have a few subtle symptoms. For others, the symptoms may be severe.

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone) include:

  • Weight loss, despite no change in diet.
  • Feeling hungrier.
  • Nervousness.
  • Irritability.
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat.
  • Fewer or lighter menstrual periods.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Increased sweating.
  • Feeling hot when others do not.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Eye changes, including bulging or redness.
  • Shaky/trembling hands.
  • More frequent bowel movements.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism (too little thyroid hormone) include:

  • Weight gain, despite no change in diet.
  • Feeling cold when others do not.
  • Fatigue.
  • Sadness or depression.
  • Dry skin.
  • Thinning hair.
  • Slow heart rate.
  • Joint and muscle pain.
  • Heavy or irregular menstrual periods.
  • Sweating less than before.

If you think you may have a thyroid issue, see your doctor. They can take a simple blood test to measure your thyroid hormone level. If a thyroid issue is not the cause of your symptoms, your doctor can look into other possible causes.

How Are Thyroid Problems in Women Treated?

Treatments depend on whether your thyroid is producing too much or too little hormone.

Hyperthyroidism treatment

Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone. Doctors treat hyperthyroidism with medicines, radioiodine therapy, and surgery.

The most common medication works by reducing thyroid activity, but this has side effects. These include allergic reaction and reduced immune system responses in some people.

Another type of medication addresses the symptoms of hyperthyroidism, by slowing down a rapid heart rate and lowering nervousness.

In radioiodine therapy, a patient takes one dose of radioactive iodine, which destroys the cells that produce thyroid hormone. This process results in hypothyroidism, which is easier to safely treat. Your doctor will then treat this with thyroid hormone replacement therapy.

A more extreme option is surgery to remove the thyroid, followed by medications to replace thyroid hormones in the body. Doctors recommend this in patients who need immediate results or can’t pursue other treatment options, due to allergies, for example.

With radioiodine therapy or thyroid removal, you’ll need to take a thyroid hormone replacement for the rest of your life.

Hypothyroidism treatment

If you’re not producing enough thyroid hormone, the treatment is a daily oral medication, levothyroxine. This drug is a synthetic thyroid hormone.

Most people find the symptoms of hypothyroidism go away after several weeks to several months of taking the drug.

This is a lifelong treatment in most cases, but your doctor will routinely measure your thyroid levels. Based on the results, the doctor may increase or lower your dose.

American Thyroid Association. Thyroid Patient Information. Link

Office on Women's Health. Thyroid Disease. Link

National Institutes of Health. Hyperthyroidism. Link

National Institutes of Health. Hypothyroidism. Link

About UPMC Magee-Womens

Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.