Increased awareness needed for thyroid disease

AACE highlights the condition during January

More people need to be aware of the impact an underactive or overactive thyroid has on their health, says Richard Hellman, MD, FACP, FACE, president of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE).

That is why this organization has designated January National Thyroid Awareness Month. Thyroid disease is common though people frequently do not connect the symptoms they have with this gland located at the front of the neck. The gland makes a hormone that increases cellular activity and its purpose is to regulate the body's metabolism.

According to Hellman, millions of people have hypothyroidism, which means too little thyroid hormone is being produced. However, about half don't know they have an underactive thyroid and the different conditions that may result from this disease, such as depression or a miscarriage for women during the first trimester of their pregnancy.

People can be treated for an ailment, such as depression, and not get well because their thyroid problem has not been addressed, says Hellman. For example, if a person is being treated for depression by medication, their condition will not improve if they have an underactive thyroid that is not corrected as well.

There are many thyroid conditions that are not well understood and are not dealt with appropriately, says Hellman.

To increase awareness about thyroid disease it is good to help people recognize the symptoms of an overactive or underactive gland. It is common for people with hypothyroidism to complain of fatigue or tiredness; constipation; depression; dry skin; and coarse, dry hair.

A person with an overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism might become nervous, have trouble sleeping, have loose stools, increased sweating, a fast heartbeat at times, and for women irregular menstrual periods.

People who are experiencing symptoms for either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism can have a simple blood test completed in their physician's office that will determine if further evaluation is necessary, says Hellman.

In addition to knowing the signs and symptoms of thyroid problems, it is important to know who is most likely to have them. Hellman says that thyroid disorders are more common in women and they tend to run in families. After age 60, people are more likely to have hypothyroidism. Hellman says in community surveys about 15% of older women will have an underactive thyroid.

Thyroid cancer is another disease that people need to be aware of, says Hellman. This cancer is the fastest growing cancer in the United States but can be completely cured if diagnosed early enough, he says. There is a simple neck check people can do to determine if they have nodules that might need to be assessed for malignancy.

While goiters, or enlarged thyroid glands, have not been common in the United States in many years, now that more and more people are turning to fast food for the majority of their meals, iodine deficiencies are increasing. For this reason, there is growing interest in making sure young women who are likely to become pregnant or are pregnant have adequate amounts of iodine, which is very small, says Hellman.

An important message is that too much iodine can cause the thyroid to malfunction just as too little can cause problems as well. "It is like the thyroid hormone, too much is bad and too little is bad. The right amount is just right," says Hellman.

Since January 1995, AACE has selected a different aspect of thyroid disease to highlight during Thyroid Awareness Month. The theme each year has provided the public with different information about the thyroid and its function. This year the focus is on quality of care when addressing thyroid disease.

There are many ways to get the word out about thyroid conditions and any kind of community outreach is helpful, says Hellman.