Your thyroid produces thyroid hormone, which controls many activities in your body, including how fast you burn calories and how fast your heart beats. Diseases of the thyroid cause it to make either too much or too little of the hormone. Depending on how much or how little hormone your thyroid makes, you may often feel restless or tired, or you may lose or gain weight. Women are more likely than men to have thyroid diseases, especially right after pregnancy and after menopause.
Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland found at the base of your neck, just below your Adam's apple. This gland makes thyroid hormone that travels in your blood to all parts of your body. The thyroid hormone controls your body's metabolism in many ways, including how fast you burn calories and how fast your heart beats.
Women are more likely than men to have thyroid disease. One in eight women will develop thyroid problems during her lifetime.1 In women, thyroid diseases can cause:
Sometimes, symptoms of thyroid problems are mistaken for menopause symptoms. Thyroid disease, especially hypothyroidism, is more likely to develop after menopause.
Hypothyroidism (hy-poh-THY-roi-diz-uhm) is when your thyroid does not make enough thyroid hormones. It is also called underactive thyroid. This slows down many of your body's functions, like your metabolism.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States is Hashimoto's disease. In people with Hashimoto's disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid. This attack damages the thyroid so that it does not make enough hormones.
Hypothyroidism also can be caused by:
Symptoms of hypothyroidism develop slowly, often over several years. At first, you may feel tired and sluggish. Later, you may develop other signs and symptoms of a slowed-down metabolism, including:
You also may have high LDL or "bad" cholesterol, which can raise your risk for heart disease.
Hypothyroidism is treated with medicine that gives your body the thyroid hormone it needs to work normally. The most common medicines are man-made forms of the hormone that your thyroid makes. You will likely need to take thyroid hormone pills for the rest of your life. When you take the pills as your doctor tells you to, the pills are very safe.
Hyperthyroidism, (hy-pur-THY-roi-diz-uhm) or overactive thyroid, causes your thyroid to make more thyroid hormone than your body needs. This speeds up many of your body's functions, like your metabolism and heart rate.
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves' disease. Graves' disease is a problem with the immune system.
At first, you might not notice the signs or symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Symptoms usually begin slowly. But, over time, a faster metabolism can cause symptoms such as:
Hyperthyroidism raises your risk for osteoporosis, a condition that causes weak bones that break easily. In fact, hyperthyroidism might affect your bones before you have any of the other symptoms of the condition. This is especially true of women who have gone through menopause or who are already at high risk of osteoporosis.
Your doctor's choice of treatment will depend on your symptoms and the cause of your hyperthyroidism. Treatments include:
Causes of thyroiditis include:
Postpartum thyroiditis, or inflammation of the thyroid after giving birth, affects 10% of women.3 It often goes undiagnosed because symptoms are much like the "baby blues" that may follow delivery. Women with postpartum thyroiditis may feel very tired and moody.
Postpartum thyroiditis typically happens in two phases, though not everyone with the condition goes through both phases:4
Your immune system may cause postpartum thyroiditis. If you have an autoimmune disease, like type 1 diabetes, your risk is higher.
Your risk is also higher if:5
Treatment for postpartum thyroiditis depends on the phase of the disease and what symptoms you have. For example, if you get symptoms of hyperthyroidism in the first phase, your treatment may include medicines to slow down the heart rate.
In most women who have postpartum thyroiditis, the thyroid returns to normal within 12 to 18 months after symptoms start. But if you have a history of postpartum thyroiditis, your risk is higher for developing permanent hypothyroidism within 5 to 10 years.5
A goiter is an unusually enlarged thyroid gland. It may happen only for a short time and may go away on its own without treatment. Or it could be a symptom of another thyroid disease that requires treatment. Goiter is more common in women than in men and especially in women before menopause.6
Some common causes of goiter include:
Usually, the only symptom of a goiter is a swelling in your neck. It may be large enough that you can see it or feel the lump with your hand. A very large goiter can also cause a tight feeling in your throat, coughing, or problems swallowing or breathing.
Your doctor will do tests to see if it is caused by another thyroid disease.
You may not need treatment if your thyroid works normally and the symptoms do not bother you.
If you do need treatment, medicine should make the thyroid shrink back to near normal size. You may need surgery to take out part or most of the thyroid.
A thyroid nodule (NAHD-yool) is a swelling in one section of the thyroid gland. The nodule may be solid or filled with fluid or blood. You may have just one thyroid nodule or many.
Thyroid nodules are common and affect four times as many women as men.7 Researchers do not know why nodules form in otherwise normal thyroids.
Most thyroid nodules do not cause symptoms and are not cancerous.8 Some thyroid nodules make too much thyroid hormone, causing hyperthyroidism. Sometimes, nodules grow so big that they cause problems with swallowing or breathing. About one-third of nodules are found by the patient, another third by the doctor, and the other third through an imaging test of the neck.
You can sometimes see or feel a thyroid nodule yourself. Stand in front of a mirror and raise your chin slightly. Look for a bump on either side of your windpipe below your Adam's apple. If the bump moves up and down when you swallow, it may be a thyroid nodule. Ask your doctor to look at it.
Treatment depends on the type of nodule or nodules that you have. Treatments include:
Thyroid cancer happens when cancer cells form from the tissues of the thyroid gland.
Most people with thyroid cancer have a thyroid nodule that does not cause any symptoms. If you do have symptoms, you may have swelling or a lump in your neck. The lump may cause problems swallowing. Some people get a hoarse voice.
To tell if the lump or nodule is cancerous, your doctor will order certain tests. Most thyroid nodules are not cancerous.
For more information about thyroid cancer, visit the National Cancer Institute's thyroid cancer page.
About three times as many women get thyroid cancer as men. The number of women with thyroid cancer is also going up. By 2020, the number of women with thyroid cancer is expected to double, from 34,000 women to more than 70,000 women.9
Thyroid cancer is more common in women who:10
The main treatment for thyroid cancer is surgery to take out the whole thyroid gland or as much of it as can be safely removed. Surgery alone can cure thyroid cancer if the cancer is small and has not yet spread to lymph nodes.
Your doctor may also use radioiodine therapy after surgery. Radioiodine therapy destroys any thyroid cancer cells that were not removed during surgery or that have spread to other parts of the body.
Your doctor may also talk with you about other treatments for thyroid cancer. Learn more about thyroid cancer treatments at the National Cancer Institute.
It can be hard to tell if you have a thyroid disease. The symptoms are the same as many other health problems. Your doctor may start by asking about your health history and if any of your family members has had thyroid disease. Your doctor may also give you a physical exam and check your neck for thyroid nodules.
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may also do other tests, such as:
High levels of radioiodine mean that your thyroid makes too much of the thyroid hormone. Low levels mean that your thyroid does not make enough thyroid hormone.
Ultrasound may also be helpful in finding thyroid cancer, although by itself it cannot be used to diagnose thyroid cancer.
Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can make it harder for you to get pregnant. This is because problems with the thyroid hormone can upset the balance of the hormones that cause ovulation. Hypothyroidism can also cause your body to make more prolactin, the hormone that tells your body to make breastmilk. Too much prolactin can prevent ovulation.
Thyroid problems can also affect the menstrual cycle. Your periods may be heavier or irregular, or you may not have any periods at all for several months or longer (called amenorrhea).
Pregnancy-related hormones raise the level of thyroid hormones in the blood. Thyroid hormones are necessary for the baby's brain development while in the womb.
It can be harder to diagnose thyroid problems during pregnancy because of the change in hormone levels that normally happen during pregnancy. But it is especially important to check for problems before getting pregnant and during pregnancy. Uncontrolled hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can cause problems for both mother and baby.
Hyperthyroidism that is not treated with medicine during pregnancy can cause:4
Hypothyroidism that is not treated with medicine during pregnancy can cause:4
For more information about thyroid diseases, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:
The Office on Women's Health is grateful for the additional reviews by:
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Page last updated: February 06, 2017.
Content last reviewed: November 06, 2014.