Diseases and Disorders > Chronic Conditions

The Facts About Hypothyroidism

Find out how hypothyroidism affects your sexual health.

A woman holds her hand to her neck as she feels for her thyroid gland.

From fatigue to infertility, the potential effects of hypothyroidism are far-reaching. However, with early detection and consistent treatment, the condition can be managed and symptoms minimized.

What is hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism is a condition characterized by an underactive thyroid gland.

The thyroid gland (glandula thyreoidea), located at the front of the neck and under the voice box, is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that belongs to the endocrine system. It produces and secretes hormones that help the body regulate its temperature and use energy. Its hormones also keep organs, including the heart, brain and muscles, functioning properly, according to the American Thyroid Association.

Untreated hypothyroidism can cause the body and its processes to slow down as a result of insufficient levels of thyroid hormone in the blood.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism

Detecting the symptoms of hypothyroidism can be tricky because they are often vague and nonspecific and may mirror symptoms of other diseases or the effects of aging.

Another reason it can be difficult to recognize symptoms as signs of hypothyroidism is that they often develop over many years and can vary depending on the severity of the case. Even so, a number of symptoms have been linked to an underactive thyroid gland.

Some common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Achy, stiff or sore muscles
  • Bradycardia (slowed heart rate)
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Dry skin
  • Fatigue
  • Fertility issues
  • Heavier-than-normal or otherwise irregular menstrual cycles
  • Hoarse voice
  • Memory problems
  • Persistent feeling of being cold
  • Sexual dysfunction, including erectile dysfunction
  • Swollen face
  • Thinning hair
  • Weakness
  • Weight gain

According to Mayo Clinic, signs of hypothyroidism in infants, children and teenagers—in addition to the ones listed above—can include problems feeding, jaundice, delayed puberty, an enlarged tongue, poor muscle tone, bulging or swelling near the belly button, delayed development of permanent teeth and poor mental development.

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above or suspect you may have an underactive thyroid gland, talk to your healthcare provider right away.

Who is at risk for hypothyroidism?

Any person, regardless of age, race or other factors, can have or develop hypothyroidism, but some factors can increase an individual's risk for the disease.

The most common risk factors for hypothyroidism include:

  • Being a woman
  • Family history of thyroid problems
  • History of thyroid treatment or thyroid surgery
  • Past radiation treatment to the neck or chest
  • Personal history of autoimmune disease

It's possible to have one or more of these risk factors and never have any thyroid problems, but the factors listed above have been linked with a greater chance of experiencing hypothyroidism.

If you have a family history of thyroid problems, let your doctor know. They may recommend the periodic testing of your thyroid hormone levels to ensure early detection in the event you ever have similar issues.

Causes of hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is caused by an underactive thyroid gland, namely not producing or secreting enough thyroxine (T-4) and triiodothyronine (T-3). This results in insufficient amounts of thyroid hormone in the bloodstream for the body to function at optimal levels.

Some of the conditions and circumstances that can cause hypothyroidism are discussed below.

Autoimmune disorders

A type of condition that most commonly affects women, autoimmune disorders can sometimes cause the immune system to erroneously attack healthy thyroid gland cells. This can weaken the thyroid's ability to produce sufficient amounts of thyroid hormone. Examples of autoimmune disorders that can cause hypothyroidism include Hashimoto's thyroiditis and atrophic thyroiditis.

Certain medications

Some medications can cause hypothyroidism. One example is lithium, used to medically treat certain psychiatric disorders, among other conditions.

Congenital hypothyroidism

This condition occurs when an infant is born with an improperly functioning thyroid gland due to an inherited thyroid disorder or an incomplete or altogether absent thyroid gland.

Iodine levels

Iodine is an essential ingredient for the production of thyroid hormones. The body supplies the thyroid gland with iodine when people consume foods that contain the mineral. If the body receives too much or too little iodine, it can lead to thyroid problems such as hypothyroidism.

Pituitary gland damage

Though rare, hypothyroidism is sometimes caused when damage to the pituitary gland prevents it from sending signals to the thyroid that stimulate hormone production in the thyroid. The pituitary gland is pea-sized and located at the base of the brain. It produces and releases several hormones that help carry out important bodily functions, such as growth.

Radiation treatment

Hypothyroidism can occur as a result of damage done to the thyroid gland during radiation therapy used to treat cancers in the head or neck.

Thyroid surgery

A person may experience hypothyroidism if part of their thyroid gland has been removed surgically. If the entire gland was removed, the individual would automatically have hypothyroidism as a result.


This condition occurs as a result of inflammation of the thyroid gland. Inflammation may be due to infection or the effects of other medical conditions, including autoimmune disorders.

Getting a hypothyroidism diagnosis

Since the symptoms of hypothyroidism mirror those of many other common conditions, it's not possible to diagnose an underactive thyroid based on symptoms alone. Rather, your doctor will perform a physical exam to evaluate any visible symptoms, talk to you about your family history of medical problems and most importantly, conduct blood tests.

Two types of blood tests are used to diagnose hypothyroidism. The first one is the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test to determine how much T4 hormone the pituitary gland is asking the body to make. If the number is abnormally high, it can be a sign that the thyroid gland is struggling to produce adequate levels of thyroid hormone.

The second test, known as a T4 test, measures how much T4 hormone is in the blood. If the results of the lab work indicate that your body isn't producing enough thyroid hormone, then you'll receive a diagnosis of hypothyroidism.


There is presently no known way to prevent hypothyroidism but you can ask your doctor to assess your risk level.

If you're at high risk for hypothyroidism, your doctor may suggest periodic blood tests to monitor your thyroid hormone levels to enable early detection and treatment should any problems arise.

Treatment for hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is an incurable condition, but it can be effectively managed. Most people can control it completely.

Treating hypothyroidism involves hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to bring T4 and TSH to normal levels, eliminating thyroid-related symptoms through restoring the hormone levels. Except in the rare case of life-threatening hypothyroidism, a condition known as myxedema, individuals can be treated outside of a hospital by taking medication regularly.

It's critical to find the correct dosage during treatment, as having too high or too low of a dose can create further thyroid-related health problems. Regular monitoring is required to ensure the correct dose is achieved and maintained over time.

What are the potential complications of hypothyroidism?

Early detection and treatment are critical to avoid complications that can result from hypothyroidism.

When left untreated, the following hypothyroidism complications can arise:

  • Goiter. This occurs when the thyroid becomes enlarged and can affect an individual's ability to breathe and swallow.
  • Heart disease. People with hypothyroidism are at higher risk for heart disease. This is because the condition can make it more likely for an individual to have higher levels of bad cholesterol.
  • Infertility. An underactive thyroid gland can lead to fertility issues for both men and women.
  • Myxedema coma. Long-untreated hypothyroidism can lead to a coma that can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Problems at birth. Pregnant women with untreated hypothyroidism are more likely to give birth to babies with birth defects. Infants born with hypothyroidism who are not treated early can experience problems with growth and development.

Hypothyroidism can have serious effects on health and lead to dangerous complications. Fortunately, early detection and treatment can better control the condition, effectively eliminating thyroid-related symptoms and reducing the risk of complications.

Clinical trials and research

Many clinical trials and research studies have either been conducted or are underway that investigate the potential causes and treatments for various diseases, including hypothyroidism. These studies are essential to enhancing our understanding of diseases with the ultimate goal being how to best prevent and treat them.

If you are interested in participating in a clinical trial, there is a government database with all active and upcoming clinical trials, both publicly and privately funded, related to hypothyroidism.


What are two symptoms of hypothyroidism?

Symptoms of hypothyroidism can be wide-ranging and often mimic symptoms of other common diseases and even conditions such as aging. That being said, two common symptoms of hypothyroidism include dry skin and fatigue.

What are the warning signs of hypothyroidism?

If you feel like your body is slowing down and you're struggling with symptoms such as fatigue, constipation or dry skin, you may have hypothyroidism. The only way to diagnose hypothyroidism is by undergoing a series of blood tests. If you are concerned you may have a thyroid problem, talk to your healthcare provider and schedule tests.

What does hypothyroidism do to a person?

Hypothyroidism leads to insufficient levels of thyroid hormone in the body. This can cause fatigue and further impact the functioning of the body, including the heart, brain, and muscles. Early detection and treatment are essential to controlling the disease and preventing further complications.