Hyperthyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland is overactive and produces excess thyroid hormone. Left untreated, hyperthyroidism can cause a number of health problems. But when should you suspect that you might have hyperthyroidism and get evaluated by a doctor?
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism
There are several symptoms that can indicate hyperthyroidism. These include:
- Unexplained weight loss, even with an increased appetite
- Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
- Shakiness or tremors in the hands
- Sweating and heat intolerance
- Fatigue or muscle weakness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Thinning hair or hair loss
- Changes in menstrual cycles in women
- More frequent bowel movements
Not everyone with hyperthyroidism will experience all of these symptoms. Some people only have a few mild symptoms, while others are more severely affected. The more symptoms you have, the more likely it is that hyperthyroidism may be present.
When symptoms should prompt evaluation
You should see your doctor if you experience any of the following:
- Significant unexplained weight loss
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Tremors or shakiness
- New onset of anxiety or panic attacks
These symptoms in particular warrant medical evaluation as soon as possible. Notify your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms.
You should also consider seeing your doctor if you have any combination of the other symptoms of hyperthyroidism. For example, if you have fatigue, heat intolerance, and hair loss, it would be a good idea to get checked out. The more symptoms you notice, the more likely hyperthyroidism could be the cause.
Who is at risk for hyperthyroidism?
There are some people who are at increased risk of developing hyperthyroidism. You should have a lower threshold for seeking medical evaluation if you are in one of these higher risk groups:
- Women, especially those over 60
- People with a family history of thyroid disease
- People with other autoimmune disorders, such as type 1 diabetes
- People who have had hyperthyroidism in the past
- People who have had radiation exposure to the neck or chest
- People with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that often causes hyperthyroidism
If you fall into one of these categories and notice any suspicious symptoms, it’s recommended to consult with your doctor promptly.
When to seek emergency treatment
In rare cases, hyperthyroidism can cause a sudden, life-threatening condition called thyroid storm. This is an exacerbation of hyperthyroid symptoms that constitutes a medical emergency. You should seek emergency medical attention if you experience:
- High fever
- Rapid, irregular heartbeat or chest pain
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Delirium, agitation, seizures, or loss of consciousness
Thyroid storm can lead to shock, organ failure, and even death if not treated immediately. If you have severe hyperthyroidism symptoms that come on suddenly, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.
If you have signs and symptoms that suggest hyperthyroidism, your doctor will run some tests to confirm the diagnosis. These may include:
- Blood tests: Levels of thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) are elevated, while thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels are low.
- Radioactive iodine uptake: This test looks at how much iodine the thyroid gland takes up from the bloodstream.
- Thyroid scan: This imaging test lets doctors visualize the structure and activity of the thyroid gland.
- Antibody tests: Measures antibodies implicated in some autoimmune causes of hyperthyroidism.
Based on your test results as well as your signs and symptoms, your doctor can determine if you have hyperthyroidism. They can then advise you on treatment options to help manage the condition.
How is hyperthyroidism treated?
There are three main treatment approaches for hyperthyroidism:
- Antithyroid medications: Drugs like methimazole and propylthiouracil block thyroid hormone production and reduce symptoms.
- Radioactive iodine: Taking a radioactive iodine pill destroys part of the thyroid gland to reduce excess hormone production.
- Surgery: Removing part or all of the thyroid gland is sometimes done when other treatments fail or in severe cases.
Treatment is tailored to each patient based on factors like their age, underlying cause of hyperthyroidism, and severity of their condition. Your doctor will explain your treatment options and recommend the best approach for getting your thyroid levels back to normal.
Outlook for hyperthyroidism
With proper treatment, most people with hyperthyroidism can manage their symptoms and avoid complications. Treatment success depends on:
- The underlying cause – Graves’ disease may recur over time, while other causes may permanently destroy thyroid function.
- Severity at diagnosis – More severe cases can sometimes be harder to manage.
- Age of patient – Elderly patients tend to have more difficulty regulating thyroid levels.
- Adherence to treatment – Taking medications regularly and following up is important.
In general, the prognosis for hyperthyroidism is good following diagnosis and treatment. With routine monitoring and care from an endocrinologist, most people are able to achieve remission of their hyperthyroid symptoms and avoid long-term complications.
Can hyperthyroidism be prevented?
There’s no known way to prevent hyperthyroidism altogether. However, you may be able to reduce your risks by:
- Avoiding iodine excess – Don’t take iodine supplements or eat large amounts of seafood if you’re at risk.
- Managing stress – Chronic stress can exacerbate autoimmune thyroid disease.
- Getting treated for other autoimmune diseases – Having one autoimmune disease increases risks of developing another.
- Discussing family planning with your doctor – Some causes of hyperthyroidism can run in families.
While you can’t always prevent hyperthyroidism, leading a healthy lifestyle and managing other medical conditions can help lower your chances of developing a thyroid disorder.
Take home messages
- Consider hyperthyroidism if you have unexplained weight loss, rapid heartbeat, tremors, or anxiety attacks.
- Seek emergency care for symptoms like fever, racing heart, vomiting, or confusion.
- Get tested if you have multiple signs of hyperthyroidism or are in a higher risk group.
- With early diagnosis and treatment, most people achieve good control of hyperthyroidism.
- Work with your doctor for ongoing monitoring and management of your thyroid levels.
Hyperthyroidism is a condition characterized by an overactive thyroid gland that produces excess thyroid hormone. Symptoms like weight loss, rapid heartbeat, tremors, and anxiety should prompt medical evaluation for hyperthyroidism, especially if you have multiple symptoms or are at higher risk. While the cause can’t always be prevented, most cases of hyperthyroidism can be successfully managed with treatment to restore normal thyroid function and minimize long term complications.