What is a thyroid?

What is a thyroid?

What is thyroid disease, and how do I know if mine is behaving itself?

If your thyroid isn’t working properly, it can cause a whole range of symptoms, from low mood or anxiety to fatigue, weight loss, weight gain, muscle problems, heart palpitations, insomnia, and fertility problems.

It’s generally more common in women and older people – and it’s well worth knowing something about the signs, symptoms, and potential treatments.

What is a thyroid?

The thyroid gland is just below that lump in your neck, with two halves that lie on either side of your windpipe. Its job is to make two hormones that it secretes into the bloodstream – known as thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).

Very very basically, these hormones impact the speed at which your body cells operate and turn food into energy, and affect things like your heart rate and body temperature. When too much (overactive thyroid) or too little (underactive thyroid) is produced things can start to go wrong.

What happens when your thyroid is underactive?

An under active thyroid is known as hypothyroidism – and it’s the most common sort of thyroid disorder.

What IS hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism – an underactive thyroid - means your thyroid gland isn’t making enough hormones.

What causes an underactive thyroid?

Most cases are either caused by the immune system attacking the thyroid gland and damaging it, or damage done in some other way – for instance thyroid cancer or surgery, or overtreatment for an overactive thyroid. It can also be linked to other health conditions, like diabetes, lupus, and celiac disease.

What are the symptoms of an underactive thyroid?

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Weight gain
  • Sensitivity to the cold
  • Dry hair and skin
  • Aching muscles

One of the problems is that symptoms of an underactive thyroid can look like lots of other things, or be hard to pinpoint – so many people go undiagnosed for a long time. The NHS points out that’s it often mistaken for menopausal symptoms, for instance.

How is an underactive thyroid diagnosed?

The only way to tell if your thyroid is working properly is with a blood test, which will measure your hormone levels. It looks specifically for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and for thyroxine (T4). High levels of TSH and low levels of T4 indicate an underactive thyroid.

In more complex cases, your blood might also be tested for triiodothyronine (T3) or for thyroid antibodies.

How is an underactive thyroid treated?

An underactive thyroid is treated with daily hormone replacement tablets called levothyroxine to raise your hormone levels. You’ll need regular blood tests to periodically check you’re taking the right dose.

Left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to complications in pregnancy, heart disease, and other serious health issues.

What happens when your thyroid is overactive?

An overactive thyroid is known as hyperthyroidism.

What IS hyperthyroidism?

Hyperthyroidism – an overactive thyroid - happens when your thyroid produces too much of the thyroid hormones.

What are the symptoms of an overactive thyroid?

  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Low mood
  • Insomnia
  • Weakness
  • Sensitivity to cold and heat
  • Swelling in the neck
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shaking/trembling
  • Weight loss
  • Red or swollen eyes
  • Vision problems

In more severe cases an overactive thyroid can cause things like pregnancy complications, heart failure and even something called a ‘thyroid storm’ – a flare up of symptoms that is a life threatening condition.

What causes an overactive thyroid?

There are a number of conditions that can cause hypothyroidism, including lumps on the thyroid gland, the immune system attacking the thyroid (known as Graves’ disease) or taking certain medicines. Problems can also be triggered by things like pregnancy or thyroid cancer.

How is an overactive thyroid diagnosed?

To diagnose an overactive thyroid you’ll need a blood test to check your TSH, T4 and T3 levels. Low levels of TSH and high levels of T3 and T4 usually indicate an overactive thyroid. A blood test called erythrocyte sedimentation rate may also be done to check for inflammation in your body.

In some cases, you may also be sent for a thyroid scan, to see what your thyroid itself looks like.

How is an overactive thyroid treated?

You can take medicine to limit the hormones being produced – and things like beta blockers to relieve some of your symptoms in the meantime. For some people a few months of treatment may be enough to stabilise things, but others will need to take medicine for life.

Another possible treatment is a type of radiotherapy that’s used to destroy some of the thyroid gland and stop it producing as many hormones. Radioactive iodine treatment is not suitable for everyone, and does have side effects you’ll need to discuss with your doctor.

Very occasionally, surgery to remove part or all of your thyroid gland might also be recommended. This will mean you’ll need to take replacement thyroxine for the rest of your life to make up for the hormones you’re missing.

What else can go wrong with a thyroid?

Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are two of the most common thyroid disorders, but other conditions can be related to thyroid issues, and other diseases include things like thyroid cancer, which affects just under 4,000 people a year, and thyroiditis, swelling of the thyroid gland often caused by an autoimmune condition.

How can I get myself checked out?

 If you’re feeling unwell - even if you’ve got wide ranging and rather vague symptoms - you should always talk to your GP. It can be tough to put all the symptoms together, so if you feel you need more time with someone or a second opinion, don’t forget you can also request an appointment with an Equipsme GP 24/7. Appointment availability is subject to demand at the time but is another back-up option if you’re unable to see your NHS GP.

You can also take things into your own hands and order your own blood test through our partners Thriva. You’ve got a £10 voucher towards a test of your choice (you’ll find the discount code on the welcome email from Thriva after your company joins or renews with Equipsme) - and they’ll send you a test pack out in the post. You do your own finger-prick blood sample from the comfort of your own home, and pop it back in the post to get to Thriva’s lab.

Find out more about Thriva home health-checks

Find out more about our GP service

How can I find out more about thyroid diseases?

NHS Hypothyroidism
NHS Hyperthyroidism
British Thyroid Foundation
British Thyroid Association
Thyroid UK