The thyroid is an important butterfly-shaped gland on the neck that converts iodine from the food that we eat into the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are released throughout the body via the bloodstream and are crucial to regulating metabolism, enabling the body and its organs to perform their vital functions.
A healthy thyroid gland produces just the right amount of hormones that the body needs to maintain its basic processes such as burning calories and regulating heartbeat. In the same way, any problem with the thyroid gland and its production of hormones can seriously affect how the body functions.
Here are some common thyroid problems to watch out for:
Hyperthyroidism, also known as an overactive thyroid, is a condition in which the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormones, which quickens the metabolic process. Symptoms include anxiety and nervousness, restlessness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, irritability, shaking and trouble sleeping. Hyperthyroidism is commonly caused by an autoimmune problem called Grave’s disease.
On the other end is hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, in which the thyroid does not produce enough hormones for the body. Symptoms include dry skin, weight gain, forgetfulness, fatigue, slow heart rate, constipation and depression. Hypothyroidism is commonly caused by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammation of the thyroid.
Goiter is an enlargement of the thyroid gland, caused by insufficient iodine in the diet. It is characterized by a swollen lump on the neck that is accompanied by hoarseness, difficulty swallowing and coughing. Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can cause goiter. Other causes include thyroid nodules and cancer.
Thyroiditis refers to any disease that causes swelling or inflammation of the thyroid gland. This includes Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which causes hypothyroidism; De Quervain’s thyroiditis, which is caused by a viral infection; acute thyroiditis, which is caused by either a bacterial or viral infection; and postpartum thyroiditis, which develops after childbirth. Radiation therapy and certain drugs can also cause thyroiditis.
Thyroid nodules are abnormal growths of cells that form a lump on the thyroid gland. They are mostly benign, and can either be solid or fluid- or blood-filled. Most nodules are incidentally discovered during routine checkups as they are asymptomatic; however, in some cases nodules can be seen or felt and cause symptoms such as difficulty swallowing or breathing.
Thyroid cancer occurs when thyroid cells grow abnormally and form a tumor. The two most common types of thyroid cancer are papillary and follicular thyroid cancer, accounting for 80% and 10-15% of all cases, respectively. Both types are treatable especially if detected early. Surgery, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, radioactive iodine and radiotherapy are treatments for thyroid cancer.