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Why You Shouldn't Leave Your Hypothyroidism Untreated

DrSugar Answers: Not Treating Hypothyroidism?

DrSugar is in the house! And she's answering your health-related questions.

DrSugar,
I was diagnosed with a hypothyroid a few years back and have just been ignoring it. I am in my early 30s, have a kid with no plans to have another. My only symptoms are memory loss, irritability, a little shaky at times. All of which I can deal with, but I'm wondering, am I hurting my long-term health?
— Endocrine Enigma

I am very glad you asked this question, because hypothyroidism is an important topic. However, I am concerned that you have chosen not to get treatment for this condition. First let's review some of the basics on hypothyroidism and then discuss the serious consequences of untreated hypothyroidism. So keep on reading.

Hypothyroidism is a condition when the thyroid gland (located at the base of the front of your neck) does not produce enough of certain hormones. These thyroid hormones have an enormous impact on your health, as they affect all aspects of your metabolism. Women, especially those older than 50, are more likely to develop hypothyroidism than men.

Generally speaking, symptoms of hypothyroidism occur slowly over time. According to the National Endocrine and Metobolic Diseases Information Service, some common symptoms of hypothyroidism are: fatigue, weight gain, puffy face, cold intolerance, a hoarse voice, joint and muscle pain, constipation, dry/thinning hair, brittle fingernails, decreased sweating, heavy or irregular menstrual periods, impaired fertility, depression, and a slowed heart rate.

Diagnosis of hypothyroidism is based on your symptoms and the results of very accurate blood tests that measure the level of thyroid stimulating hormone (also known as TSH — a hormone released by the pituitary gland that regulates the function of the thyroid gland) and the levels of the thyroid hormones. Standard treatment for hypothyroidism involves the daily use of the synthetic thyroid hormone, levothyroxine. Treatment can be lifelong, and your physician will check your TSH levels to properly dose the medication to restore adequate hormone levels and shift your body back into normal gear.

Left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to multiple complications and health problems. First, constant stimulation of the gland to release more hormones can result in the gland growing larger — a condition known as goiter, which can affect your appearance and may interfere with swallowing or breathing. It can also lead to an increased risk of heart disease, because high levels of bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) can occur in people with an underactive thyroid. Hypothyroidism can also lead to an enlarged heart or heart failure. Memory loss or mental slowing as well as depression can occur with untreated hypothyroidism and may become more severe over time. Finally, a rare, but possibly fatal consequence of long-term, untreated hypothyroidism is called myxedema. Myxedema occurs when the body’s levels of thyroid hormone become extremely low. Its symptoms include intense cold intolerance and drowsiness followed by profound fatigue/lethargy and unconsciousness (myxedema coma).

You mention that you are not interested in having more children, but if you change your mind, you may have a problem with conceiving, as untreated hypothyroidism can lead to infertility. If a person with untreated hypothyroidism conceives, there is a higher risk of birth defects and serious intellectual and developmental problems.

Hypothyroidism is a disorder that is easily diagnosable and treatable. If you think you might have hypothyroidism or have already been diagnosed with the disorder, it is imperative that you speak with your primary care physician for prompt evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment.

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DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.

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