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Common Thyroid Problems in Women Explained

Plus, Which Blood Tests to Order Now
June 9, 2024
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Do you feel tired or irritable all the time? Have you experienced an unexpected change in your weight, appetite, or menstrual cycle?

Your thyroid is a tiny, wing-shaped gland located just below your Adam’s apple. Despite its small size, it can send essential functions (e.g., heart rate, metabolism, and digestion) into a tailspin when it’s not working well.

Women are more likely than men to have thyroid diseases—especially following pregnancy and menopause. Approximately one in eight women will develop thyroid problems during their lifetime.

Before we share which blood tests you’ll need to order, we’ll explore common thyroid problems.

What causes thyroid problems in women?

Here’s a breakdown that quickly explains what causes thyroid problems in women and why women are more susceptible to them.

  • Women have two X chromosomes (DNA molecules).
  • Men have one X and one Y chromosome.
  • X chromosomes contain more genes than Y chromosomes, meaning they have a higher risk of mutation.
  • Gene mutations commonly cause autoimmune disorders. This means women are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases than men simply because they have two X chromosomes.
  • Autoimmune disorders, like Hashimoto’s disease, can cause your thyroid to underproduce thyroid hormones, causing hypothyroidism.
  • Autoimmune disorders, like Grave’s disease, can cause your thyroid to overproduce thyroid hormones, causing hyperthyroidism.

Next, we’ll explore the different thyroid disorders in more detail. We’ll share what causes them, common symptoms, and why women have a higher risk after pregnancy and menopause. We’ll also recommend the lab tests you’ll need.

How common are thyroid problems in women?

Thyroid disease is very common among American men and women, affecting approximately 20 million people. However, women are five to eight times more likely to develop thyroid disease during their lifetime.

Even more eye-opening is that as many as 15 million American women have an undiagnosed thyroid problem. They’re self-medicating to ease symptoms without fully understanding the root cause. This often leads to them not getting the lasting relief they need and deserve.

As a result, women develop more severe medical problems resulting from undetected or undertreated thyroid problems.

The most common thyroid problems in women include:

Hashimoto’s disease

Hashimoto’s disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) in the United States. It affects approximately 5 in every 100 Americans. It can occur at any age but most commonly affects middle-aged women.
Hashimoto's disease is an autoimmune disorder that triggers the production of antibodies, which attack the thyroid cells. Common symptoms may include an enlarged thyroid gland (goiter), fatigue, unexplained weight gain, and muscle weakness.

If you think you’re suffering from Hashimoto’s disease, we recommend ordering the Hashimoto’s Workup Panel. This test can help identify and diagnose the underlying cause of your symptoms.

Postpartum Thyroiditis

Postpartum thyroiditis affects ten percent of women but often goes undiagnosed because symptoms mimic “baby blues” that may follow the delivery.

We recommend ordering the basic thyroid health lab panel to help identify and diagnose abnormal postpartum thyroid levels. This information can help you get the treatment you need to feel better fast.

Annual blood tests are recommended for five to ten years for women with a history of postpartum thyroiditis.

What Are the Different Types of Thyroid Disease?

There are several thyroid disorders, but the most common are hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, and thyroiditis.

Hyperthyroidism or thyrotoxicosis occurs when your thyroid gland overproduces thyroid hormones. If you struggle with this condition, you may also experience visible neck and thyroid gland swelling (goiter). Grave's disease is an immune system disorder and the most common type of hyperthyroidism. 

Hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid gland underproduces thyroid hormones. If you’re struggling with this condition, common symptoms include fatigue, muscle aches, and stiffness. Hypothyroidism is more common than hyperthyroidism among U.S. women.

Thyroiditis is an inflammation of the thyroid gland. It causes underproduction of thyroid hormone, high temperature, and pain in the neck, jaw, or ear. It is most commonly seen in women between 20 and 50.

Hashimoto's disease and postpartum thyroiditis are the most common types of thyroiditis. These diseases occur when the body's immune system makes antibodies that attack the thyroid tissue.

What Are the Symptoms of Thyroid Problems in Women?

Here is a quick breakdown of the common symptoms of thyroid problems in women:

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism often begins slowly, and its symptoms are often mistaken for stress or other health problems. Common symptoms include:

  • Sensitivity to hot temperatures
  • Muscle weakness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Tremors in the hands and fingers
  • Feeling nervous or anxious
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Dry, thinning hair
  • Slow heart rate
  • Less than usual menstrual bleeding or less frequent menstruation
  • Rapid heartbeat, abnormal heartbeat, or pounding of the heart
  • An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)

Hypothyroidism

Symptoms of hypothyroidism develop slowly over time. At first, symptoms may be mild and primarily include feelings of fatigue. However, as the condition progresses, you may notice the following signs and symptoms:

  • Sensitivity to cold temperatures
  • Muscle weakness
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Fatigue
  • Dry skin
  • Dry, thinning hair
  • Slow heart rate
  • More than usual menstrual bleeding
  • Higher than normal LDL (bad cholesterol)

How does the thyroid affect women’s bodies?

An overactive or underactive thyroid gland can directly impact your reproductive system. This hormone imbalance may have the following effects on a woman's body:

  • Puberty and menstruation
    Abnormally high or low thyroid hormone levels can lead to very light or heavy menstrual periods. It can also cause irregular or absent menstrual periods.
  • Reproduction
    Certain thyroid diseases may impact or prevent ovulation (when an egg is released from an ovary). Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) also increases your risk for ovarian cysts.
  • Pregnancy and postpartum
    Certain thyroid disorders during pregnancy can harm the fetus and lead to postpartum thyroiditis in the woman. Irregular thyroid hormone levels during pregnancy can cause miscarriages, preterm delivery, stillbirth, and postpartum hemorrhage.
  • Menopause
    Certain thyroid disorders can cause early menopause. Treating hyperthyroidism can sometimes ease symptoms of or prevent early menopause.

What is postpartum thyroiditis?

Postpartum thyroiditis is an inflammation of the thyroid that generally causes women to feel tired or moody.

If diagnosed, you must have regular blood tests to ensure your thyroid hormones stay within a healthy range. 

At Ulta Lab Tests, we offer a comprehensive thyroid health lab panel to assess your overall thyroid health. The results can help you and your provider better understand your thyroid function and identify potential areas of concern.

Postpartum thyroiditis is temporary, often clearing up within 12 to 18 months. If your thyroid levels remain too high or too low, you may have permanent thyroid problems that require ongoing medication management.

Can thyroid disease affect getting pregnant?

As we mentioned briefly, thyroid disease can lead to irregular menstrual and ovulation cycles. This can impair your fertility and make it more difficult to get pregnant.

If left untreated, thyroid problems in women can lead to complications during pregnancy, including:

  • high blood pressure
  • premature delivery
  • low birth weight
  •  miscarriage

Once your over- or underactive thyroid is controlled with medication, you can achieve pregnancy and deliver a healthy baby (assuming you do not have other fertility issues).

Thyroid Disease vs. Menopause

A middle-aged woman experiencing fatigue, forgetfulness, mood swings, weight gain, irregular menstrual cycles, hot flashes, or insomnia could be experiencing menopause. But they may also be experiencing symptoms of thyroid disease.

Your long-term health depends on your ability to distinguish between symptoms of menopause and common thyroid diseases like hyper- and hypothyroidism. Because so many symptoms overlap, thyroid disease must be diagnosed using a basic thyroid lab panel.

This simple blood test measures your T3, T4, and TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels to help you identify or rule out thyroid disease.

Do I Need Surgery for My Thyroid Disorder?

While prescription medication is often sufficient intervention for stabilizing thyroid problems in women, surgery may sometimes be necessary to treat:

  • Goiter
    A large goiter or nodule (growth on the thyroid) that presses on your windpipe or causes other painful symptoms.
  • Medication intolerance
    You experience severe side effects from thyroid medications.
  • Thyroid cancer
    You have cancerous thyroid nodules, cannot rule out cancer, or the nodule continues to grow despite prescription medication.

One of the following surgeries may be necessary, depending on your unique needs and circumstances:

  • Biopsy or lumpectomy
    Removal of a small part of the thyroid gland.
  • Lobectomy
    Removal of half the thyroid gland.
  • Sub-total thyroidectomy
    Removal of a large portion of thyroid tissue on both sides.
  • Near-total thyroidectomy
    Removal of almost all thyroid tissue.
  • Total thyroidectomy
    Removal of all thyroid tissue.

We recommend women ages 20-60 who have concerns about thyroid health order one or more of our physician-approved thyroid lab tests. Once you receive your results, you can discuss them with your primary care physician.

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