Thyroid issues are often associated with adults, and many parents are surprised to learn that thyroid problems are the most common endocrine disorder among school-age kids. It's estimated that nearly 37 out of 1,000 children have thyroid disease.
"Every cell in the body needs the thyroid hormones to operate at their normal levels," explains Ryan Stewart, M.D., Pediatric Endocrinologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. "Thyroid issues in children can impact the body in many different ways, depending on the type of thyroid disorder a child has."
Dr. Stewart explains the role of the thyroid in the body and the most common types of thyroid conditions in children.
What does the thyroid do?
The thyroid is a small but powerful gland in the neck. Many providers describe its location as right where a bowtie would sit in front of the neck, below the Adam's apple. The thyroid gland sends out thyroid hormones to all the cells in the body. These hormones play an important role in supporting and regulating growth, puberty and many other body functions.
What are common thyroid problems in children?
Hypothyroidism in children
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid doesn't send out enough hormones to the body. Thyroid hormones regulate many of the body's functions, including the body's metabolism. When there aren't enough hormones, systems in the body can start to slow down.
Common symptoms of hypothyroidism in children include:
- Dry skin
- Feeling cold
- Hair loss
- Irregular menstrual periods (in girls)
- Poor memory or trouble concentrating
- Slowed growth
Hypothyroidism can be congenital, which means babies are born with it. Newborn screenings at birth check for hypothyroidism in infants. Hypothyroidism can also be acquired, developing in late childhood or in the teenage years.
One of the most common causes of low thyroids level is thyroiditis (Hashimoto's disease), an autoimmune disease named after the physician who discovered the condition. The disease attacks the thyroid and damages the gland.
"We see a lot of patients with Hashimoto's thyroiditis," explains Dr. Stewart. "It's very common in girls, with about 1 in 300 girls diagnosed with it. It's not quite as common in boys with about 1 in 1,000 boys being affected by it."
Hyperthyroidism in children
Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid is overactive and sends too much thyroid hormone into the body. This can cause the body to "speed up," meaning an increase in the body's metabolism.
Common symptoms of hyperthyroidism in children include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hot
- Growth acceleration
- Huge appetite
- Irregular menstrual cycles (in girls)
- Muscle weakness
- Tremors (typically in the hands)
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves' disease, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to make antibodies that tell the body to make more thyroid hormone than is needed. Other causes of hyperthyroidism also include inflammation and nodules in the thyroid gland.
How are thyroid disorders diagnosed in kids?
Pediatricians are the first line of defense if parents suspect their child may have a thyroid problem.
"Thyroid disorders in children are becoming so common that checking thyroid levels is now a standard part of a well-child exam," says Dr. Stewart. "The patients we see in our clinic have already been diagnosed with a thyroid problem based on a simple blood test that checks their thyroid hormone levels."
If your child has a thyroid problem, an endocrinologist will work with your child and family to understand the cause of the issue and create a treatment plan to help regulate the thyroid disorder.
The Pediatric Endocrinology Department at Children's Health offers personalized, patient-focused care to help children and their families manage a wide range of endocrine conditions, including thyroid issues. Learn more about our Endocrinology programs and the support we offer children and families.
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