January is Thyroid Awareness Month, and to shed light on this important topic, Dr. Jerome Hershman, MD, Director of the Director of the Endocrine Clinic at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, has outlined three important steps for anyone suspecting a thyroid problem on MerckManuals.com:
1. Recognize the symptoms
The thyroid, the bow-tie shaped gland just below your Adam's apple, is responsible for producing hormones that control the body's metabolism and impact vital body functions including heart rate, skin maintenance, growth, temperature regulation, fertility and digestion. If your thyroid gland produces too little or too much of essential hormones, you may develop a serious disorder. Two of the most common thyroid disorders are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism is underactivity of the thyroid gland, slowing vital body functions. Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include weight gain, constipation, feeling cold, puffy eyes and face, hoarse and slowed speech and coarse, dry hair and skin.
Hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid gland, is less common. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism may include increased heart rate and blood pressure, feeling warm and sweaty, nervousness and anxiety, diarrhea, difficulty sleeping and weight loss.
2. Check your family history
Thyroid conditions may be common, but that doesn't mean they're easy to spot. Most of the symptoms associated with thyroid issues – including weight gain and fatigue – are non-specific, meaning they don't point to a specific condition. This can make it difficult for doctors to tell whether you have a thyroid disorder unless they run tests.
There is one place you can look to help get a better idea of your risk for thyroid conditions – your family history. If thyroid issues run in your family, you may be at greater risk of developing hypothyroidism or another thyroid disease.
Additionally, women are particularly at risk for a thyroid issue. One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during the course of their lives – that's five to eight times the rate in men.
3. Meet with your doctor
If your symptoms seem like they could be from a thyroid disorder, your doctor will likely order blood tests. Even if you're not experiencing symptoms, some doctors recommend regular screening for hypothyroidism for certain people. Doctors don't screen for hyperthyroidism because its symptoms are usually more obvious.
Doctors and professional groups have varying recommendations on screening, but many doctors think it is reasonable for the following people to consider getting screened:
- Women who are age 35 or older
- Men who are age 65 or older
- Women who are pregnant, especially pregnant women who have a family history of thyroid issues, or type 1 diabetes or who are extremely overweight, or older than 30
Doctors do agree that all newborn babies should have screening for congenital hypothyroidism.
If you suspect you are experiencing symptoms related to your thyroid gland, talk to your primary care physician right away – detection is the key to getting the condition under control and getting you on your way to a healthier year to come.
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