Understanding your thyroid

Women are five times more likely than men to experience a thyroid condition at some point in their life. Unfortunately, many women are unaware of the symptoms of thyroid disease so it can be difficult to access effective treatment quickly.

What is the thyroid and what does it do?
The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system. It produces hormones that help the body use energy, stay warm and keep the brain, heart, muscles and other organs working as they should. It also has an important role in metabolism. The thyroid gland is located in your lower neck (just below the Adam’s apple in a man) and wraps around the windpipe.

What are some common thyroid problems?
The two most common thyroid conditions affecting women are hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid).

Hyperthyroidism is when there is too much thyroid hormone. It most often affects younger women in their 20s to 40s. The cause is unknown but symptoms can include palpitations, anxiety, feeling very hot, diarrhoea, weight loss and menstrual irregularities.

Medication, radioactive iodine therapy or surgery to remove the thyroid gland (in more severe cases), can usually resolve the condition.

Hypothyroidism is when there is too little thyroid hormone. This can affect younger women but is more common in middle-aged women. A lack of thyroid hormone leads to symptoms such as fatigue, menstrual irregularities, weight gain and constipation and some women may start to lose their hair and experience dry skin.

Treatment for hypothyroidism is usually effective and straightforward and can be taken in tablet form.

When should I have a thyroid function test?
There are no clear guidelines for thyroid screening but if you have a strong family history of thyroid disease, or previous treatment for a thyroid condition, you should have regular checks. Once women reach their 40s, they should consider having their thyroid function checked each year because the risks of some forms of thyroid disease increase with age.

If you are concerned about your thyroid function, make an appointment with your health professional. He or she can arrange a blood test to check thyroid function and prescribe treatment that is generally effective, safe and simple.

For more information, go to Thyroid Australia.

Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health www.jeanhailes.org.au or call toll free 1800 JEAN HAILES (532 642)