How do I know if my teen has a thyroid problem?
Is your teen sleeping a lot? Isn’t that what all teens do? Maybe, but excessive fatigue and lack of energy can be caused by many conditions including a thyroid disorder.
For many, the thyroid is a somewhat mysterious gland. Shaped like a butterfly, it sits at the base of the neck, bobbing up and down when we swallow. But the thyroid is incredibly important to health, since all the body’s cells require thyroid hormone to work correctly.
But why would someone as young as an adolescent develop thyroid disease? It’s not always clear, although thyroid problems can’t be “caught” from someone else. Most commonly, a teen with a thyroid disorder may have or developed an autoimmune disorder such as Graves’ disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.1,2 Other causes can include:
- Thyroiditis (when the thyroid gland becomes inflamed)1
- Removal of the thyroid gland through surgery1
- Radiation treatment1
- Certain medicines1,2
- Damage to pituitary gland1
- Neonatal Graves’ disease (developed from a mother with Grave’s disease)2
- The TSH receptor gene malfunctions, causing an overproduction of horomones2
Types of Thyroid Disorders
Thyroid disease is broken down into two main types: hyperthyroidism, when the gland makes too much thyroid hormone; and hypothyroidism, when it makes too little. Each person’s symptoms are based on which type of thyroid disorder they have. For Americans over 12 years old, about 1 in 100 have hyperthyroidism and 5 in 100 have hypothyroidism.3,4 Symptoms can include:
- Hyperthyroidism: anxiousness/nervousness, lack of concentration, irritability, sensitivity to heat, shakiness, heart-racing, frequent bowel movements, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, and weight loss.2
- Hypothyroidism: fatigue, constipation, sensitivity to cold, an enlarged thyroid (goiter), dry skin or hair, depression, irregular or heavy menstrual cycle, weight gain.3
Additionally, hypothyroidism may cause slower growth and the changes of puberty may be delayed if a young teen suffers from this disorder. It’s important to note weight gain may not be a sign of a thyroid problem, if it presents as the only symptom.3,5
Diagnosis and Treatment Process
Patients should undergo a physical exam looking for the presence of a goiter — a swollen or enlarged thyroid gland—or a lump called a nodule in the gland. Blood tests to check your TSH (hormone made in pituitary gland), T3 and T4. Your child’s doctor may order additional testing and imaging to determine the underlying cause and check if the thyroid is underactive or overreactive.2
The good news is that treating thyroid disease is usually quite straightforward. Depending on test results — whether thyroid hormone is too high or too low — medication is typically prescribed to regulate or supplement those levels. In some cases, radiation or surgery may be considered.2
But don’t worry: Teens who have been growing slowly because of thyroid disease before diagnosis will likely improve once they’ve been treated. The normal body changes associated with puberty will follow as well. Follow-up care is simple, with regular blood tests to keep track of thyroid levels and medication “tweaks” based on these results.
Symptoms of thyroid disease can be right in front of you, resembling “normal” teenage habits and conditions. But spotting signs of thyroid problems in your teen requires keeping your eyes open. If you notice any signs of thyroid disorders in your teen, consult your primary care doctor for confirmation.
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- Hypothyroidism in Children and Adolescents. https://www.thyroid.org/hypothyroidism-children-adolescents/. Accessed May 12, 2023.
- Hyperthyroidism in Children and Adolescents. https://www.thyroid.org/hyperthyroidism-children-adolescents/. Accessed May 12, 2023.
- Hypothyroidism. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/endocrine-diseases/hypothyroidism. Last reviewed March 2021. Accessed April 12, 2023.
- Hyperthyroidism. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/endocrine-diseases/hyperthyroidism. Last reviewed August 2021. Accessed April 12, 2023.
- Thyroid and Weight. https://www.thyroid.org/thyroid-and-weight/. Accessed April 12, 2023.
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