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Know the signs of common thyroid disorders like underactive and overactive thyroids and thyroid cancer.

As many as 25 million Americans have a thyroid disorder and cases of thyroid cancer are on the rise. Learning the most common symptoms of these endocrine system disorders can help you determine if it’s time to see your doctor about your thyroid.

Thyroid cancer is a rapidly growing cancer in the US with over 52,000 new cases estimated to occur. 

The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped organ at the front of your throat, produces hormones that regulate body functions like your heart rate, body weight and cholesterol.

“Most thyroid disorder cases can be successfully managed with treatment,” says Madiha Alvi, MD, an endocrinologist at Geisinger. “In fact, knowing the key symptoms can help you to catch cancer early.”

What is the difference between an underactive thyroid and an overactive thyroid?

With as many as 25 million Americans having a problem with their thyroid. An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) is the most common thyroid disorder. Hormones in your body will start to slow down and you may have symptoms including:

  • Brittle nails
  • Depression
  • Dry skin or hair 
  • Fatigue
  • Forgetfulness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Changes in menstrual flow
  • Slowing of your bowels or constipation
  • Weight gain despite your best efforts to lose weight

An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) creates the opposite problem. Here, the thyroid is too active and produces more thyroid hormones than the body needs. If you have an overactive thyroid, you may have symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety, nervousness and irritability
  • Changes in bowel habits and loose stools
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hot and sweating
  • Problems falling asleep (insomnia)
  • Racing heart and palpitations
  • Weight loss (un-intentional)

What signs might mean thyroid cancer?

Thyroid cancer doesn’t typically show symptoms in the earliest stages. Still, there are common symptoms you can look out for, including:

  • A lump in your throat that you can feel through your skin
  • Constant coughing, non-related to a cold
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Hoarseness or other changes in your voice
  • Pain in your neck or throat
  • Swelling in your neck or neck’s lymph nodes

Thyroid cancer risks include exposures to high levels of radiation and inherited syndromes. 

“If you have any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor to get evaluated,” says Dr. Alvi.

At an appointment, your doctor will conduct a physical exam, checking for physical changes in your throat. They may order an ultrasound, blood test or imaging test for further investigation and a diagnosis.

What does treatment look like?

Treatment for thyroid cancer often requires surgery where the lymph nodes, parts of or the entire thyroid is removed. After surgery, hormone medication is prescribed for life.

“If the thyroid is removed, medication is needed so your body can receive the hormones it needs to properly function,” says Dr. Alvi.

Radioactive iodine is often used after surgery to destroy any remaining thyroid tissue and any remaining cancer cells. It’s prescribed in pill form with low risk of affecting areas of the body other than the thyroid. Alternatively, external radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be used as treatments in advanced cases in addition to surgery.

There are several treatments available for overactive and underactive thyroids. Radioactive iodine can also be used here to shrink the thyroid gland. Anti-thyroid medications can reduce symptoms by preventing the thyroid from producing too many hormones. Underactive thyroids are often treated with medication that helps your body produce the right amount of hormones.

“If you’re pregnant, some of these treatment methods may not be available to you,” says Dr. Alvi. “Your doctor will talk to you about other treatment options, such as surgery.”

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Meet Madiha Alvi, MD 

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