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Thyroid FAQs

Reviewed by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

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Q:Women are more likely than men to have a thyroid imbalance. True or False?

A:True.

The most common thyroid disorder acquired at any age is thyroiditis. Women are more likely than men to experience thyroid disorders; however, the reason is not known. Some investigators believe that the immune system changes during pregnancy and delivery may contribute to the higher risk of autoimmune disorders observed in adult women.

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Q:Where is the thyroid gland located?

A:The thyroid gland is located below the Adam's apple in the lower part of the neck and wraps around the windpipe (trachea).

The thyroid gland has the shape of a butterfly. The two lobes or "wings" are attached to one another by the middle portion, called the isthmus.

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Q:The thyroid produces hormones that regulate what bodily function?

A:The thyroid produces hormones that regulate metabolism.

The thyroid gland is the only human tissue that actively absorbs and processes iodine from the diet, usually seafood or iodized salt. The thyroid gland uses the iodine to produce hormones that help regulate the body's metabolism including growth and other functions of the body.

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Q:Weight loss, rapid heart rate, and heat sensitivity are likely symptoms of what?

A:Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid).

Hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid gland is caused when thyroid gland is too active. As a result, the thyroid gland produces more hormones than the body needs. These high levels of thyroid hormone can lead to weight loss, increased heart rate, and heat intolerance.

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Q:An abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland is called a goiter. True or False?

A:True.

A goiter is not cancerous. It is simply a thyroid gland that is bigger than usual. A goiter can be associated with levels of thyroid hormone that are normal (euthyroid), too high (hyperthyroid) or too low (hypothyroid).

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Q:Symptoms such as very high body temperature, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath describe what thyroid condition?

A:Thyroid storm.

Thyroid storm is a rare medical emergency and requires hospitalization to stabilize the patient. Thyroid storm generally occurs in the context of undiagnosed hyperthyroidism, after several weeks or months of progressively worsening symptoms unrecognized by the affected person or family members until the thyroid storm occurs.

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Q:Which is more common? Hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism?

A:Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). Hyperthyroidism is far more common than hypothyroidism. An unexplained change in weight is one of the most common signs of a thyroid disorder. Weight gain may signal low levels of thyroid hormones, a condition called hypothyroidism. In contrast, if the thyroid produces more thyroid hormones than the body needs, you may lose weight unexpectedly. This is known as hyperthyroidism.

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Q:Thyroid disorders are sometimes mistaken for which disease or condition?

A:In some women, symptoms related to thyroid disorders may be mistaken for those of menopause.

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism like menstrual changes or lack of menstruation (amenorrhea), mood swings, hot flashes, and insomnia may be mistaken for menopause symptoms.

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Q:Once over the age of 35, thyroid function screening should take place and regular intervals of what?

A:All adults older than 35 should be screened for thyroid disease every 5 years by simple blood tests.

Subtle thyroid disease can be detected by a blood test. Thyroid disease becomes more common with normal aging. Additional risk factors for thyroid disorders include exposure to certain kinds of radiation (for example, radiation therapy for cancer), brain or neck surgery, major head injury, and specific genetic conditions (as examples, Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, type 1 diabetes, lupus, etc.).

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Q:How does radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism leave the body?

A:Urine.

The thyroid gland is the only human tissue which actively absorbs and stores iodine. Whether ingested from the diet or as radiotherapy, any iodine circulating in the blood is filtered by the kidney into the urine.

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Q:In most people, one radioactive iodine treatment will cure hyperthyroidism. True or False?

A:True.

Graves's hyperthyroidism can be treated with medication (methimazole) to suppress the thyroid, radioactive iodine to destroy the thyroid, or surgery to remove the thyroid (called thyroidectomy). The risks, potential benefits, and timing of each approach should be discussed with your endocrinologist or health-care professional based on your specific circumstances. Pediatric patients (younger than 18) with Graves' hyperthyroidism may enter remission with medication alone, thereby avoiding the risks and inconvenience of radioiodine or surgery. However, most adults with Graves' do not respond with medication alone. Radioiodine is preferred as initial therapy for Graves' disease in adults. Permanent hypothyroidism should be expected after radioiodine or thyroidectomy, and hypothyroidism can be conveniently treated with once daily dosing of a small thyroid hormone replacement pill.

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Q:The study of thyroid diseases falls under which branch of medicine?

A:The study of disease and conditions of the thyroid fall under the branch of medicine referred to as endocrinology.

Endocrinologists are doctors and researchers who care for, manage, and study individuals with hormone problems and endocrine gland problems.

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