Conditions InDepth: Hypothyroidism
Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid gland does not make enough hormones. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck. A healthy thyroid makes the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These play many roles in the body, such as:
- How many calories a person burns and how much they weigh
- The speed at which the heart beats
- The temperature of a person's body
- How quickly the body breaks down food
If it is not treated, it can lead to many health problems, such as obesity and heart disease.
The Thyroid Gland
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Hashimoto thyroiditis is the most common cause. A problem with the immune system causes it to attack thyroid gland cells.
Other causes are:
- Subacute thyroiditis
—Inflammation of the thyroid gland after a viral upper respiratory tract infection
—Such as those used to treat hyperthyroidism, lithium for mental health problems, and some heart medicines
- Medical treatments
—Medicines, radiation therapy, or surgery to remove part of the thyroid gland
- Idiopathic thyroid atrophy
—The thyroid tissue shrivels up for reasons that are not known
- Iodine deficiency
—The thyroid gland does not get enough iodine to make hormones (rare in the United States)
- Iodine excess
—Foods (such as shellfish) and some medicines (such as cough medicine) that have large amounts of iodine can stop the thyroid from making hormones (rare)
- Certain illnesses
—Cancers and certain infections
- Pituitary adenoma
—A non-cancerous tumor of the pituitary gland causes a problem signaling the thyroid to make hormones
- Postpartum thyroiditis
—The thyroid becomes inflamed after giving birth and does not work as it should
- Congenital hypothyroidism
—When a baby is born with problems making normal amounts of thyroid hormones
Chaker L, Bianco AC, et al. Hypothyroidism. Lancet. 2017 Sep 23;390(10101):1550-1562.
Hypothyroidism in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
https://www.dynamed.com/condition/hypothyroidism-in-adults. Accessed February 10, 2021.
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/endocrine-diseases/hypothyroidism. Accessed February 10, 2021.
Last reviewed December 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
James P. Cornell, MD
Last Updated: 2/10/2021