What Are Early Warning Signs of Thyroid Problems?

Women touching a thyroid gland in her neck
Picture of Swollen Thyroid Gland in Neck

(Tina Dawn/ VM Med) — Most people forget they even have a thyroid. That small gland at the base of our neck isn’t something most of us think of when we discuss self care or healthcare prevention. But a healthy thyroid is absolutely vital for our overall health because that gland controls every one of our bodily functions. If your thyroid isn’t performing the way that it should be you will quickly notice the signs.

The majority of people experiencing issues with their thyroid will usually have two types of main issues: either the gland doesn’t release enough thyroid hormone, a condition referred to as hypothyroidism, or it releases too much, known as hyperthyroidism. Symptoms vary depending on whether we have too much or too little thyroid hormone in our body.

The tricky thing about these issues is that the symptoms and the early warning signs of thyroid problems usually mimic many other (often, benign) conditions. That means that it can become confusing to diagnose, or we downplay the symptoms for years, not able to connect the dots. Thyroid conditions can, therefore, go undiagnosed for a very long time. It’s important to pay attention to the warning signs and share these with your healthcare provider who can then order the requisite tests to diagnose your condition.

Underactive VS Overactive Thyroid

Depending on whether you have an underactive or overactive thyroid gland your symptoms will vary.

With hypothyroidism, the tell-tale symptoms indicating a problem are usually excessive and constant fatigue, feeling cold all the time, gaining weight for no reason, an irregular period, constipation, having difficulty concentrating (often referred to as ‘brain fog’), or experiencing dry skin, thinning hair, and brittle nails. As is easy to see, many of these symptoms can be caused by a variety of other conditions or be symptoms one can successfully ignore for a long time.

An underactive thyroid basically slows down your overall bodily functions, which would explain the lack of energy, the weight gain, and the inability to properly regulate your body temperature. These symptoms are occasionally accompanied by depression and mood swings. Heavy periods are also a sign of hypothyroidism.

Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, does the opposite. Your thyroid gland overproduces the hormone so you’re on constant overdrive. Symptoms include rapid and unintentional weight loss, feeling jittery all the time, you have abnormal blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat. People who have hyperthyroidism often have feelings of anxiety or may feel hot and sweaty for no reason. They may also experience very light periods or periods that disappear for months. One of the leading causes of hyperthyroidism is Grave’s Disease, an autoimmune disease that attacks your thyroid and causes it to produce too many hormones. One of the symptoms that may indicate Grave’s are puffy, protruding eyes. Consult your physician if you notice these visible changes to your eyes.

While thyroid cancer usually doesn’t exhibit many symptoms, it can occasionally cause pain, difficulty swallowing and some voice changes. Thyroid cancer is usually diagnosed when you or your health professional discover a lump or nodule that is either felt, or sometimes seen on ultrasound. It’s important to note that most thyroid nodules are benign, not cancerous.

Doctor holding up a thyroid ultrasound device to a patient's neck
Medical Professional Performing a Thyroid Ultrasound

Thyroid Conditions Far More Common in Women

Women, in particular, should pay attention to all these symptoms because they are far more likely to experience a thyroid problem than men are.

“One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime, according to the American Thyroid Association, and women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.”

Thyroid cancer is also most common in women between the ages of 30 and 60.

Thyroid disorders may interfere with a woman’s menstruation cycle, can cause the early onset of menopause, and can be a cause of infertility in women trying to conceive.

Complicating matters, some symptoms of an overactive thyroid (hot flashes, insomnia, no signs of your period for months, and mood swings) are often mistaken for early menopause. If experiencing these symptoms, don’t assume, check with your doctor.

Why It Matters That Thyroid Conditions Are Treated

Thyroid conditions are not minor. They can impact us in many varied and important ways. Untreated thyroid issues can affect your entire body and dangerously strain your organs and heart if left untreated for too long. They can also affect your metabolism, energy levels, and mood.

In women, thyroid disorders can interfere with fertility, and hypothyroidism during pregnancy can affect both mother and baby. A lack of thyroid hormone can also cause miscarriages or preterm delivery. This is why it’s important to know the early warning signs of thyroid problems.

Luckily, most thyroid conditions are easy to treat once diagnosed with simple blood or imaging tests. Those found to have an underactive thyroid will usually be prescribed thyroid hormone medication that will restore thyroid function to normal. In more serious conditions, such as an enlarged thyroid gland or thyroid cancer, the thyroid can be surgically removed.

Still have questions? Read more articles on thyroid conditions or book a consultation with our thyroid experts.