Though thyroid disease is commonly thought of as an adult health problem, the truth is that thyroid problems can develop at any age, including infancy. In fact, recent studies estimate that thyroid disorders affect nearly 37 in 1000 school-aged children worldwide.
There’s also no denying that thyroid health is just as important in the early years of life as it is in adulthood. This is because the thyroid produces hormones that control a host of vital functions, including metabolism and brain development. An imbalance in these hormones can do profound harm to a still-growing body, which is why it’s imperative for parents to keep a watchful eye on their children’s thyroid health.
Timely diagnosis and treatment are critical for treating thyroid conditions in children. Understanding the thyroid’s role and how to spot potential problems puts parents in the best place to get their kids the help that they need as soon as possible. In this article, you’ll get key information on signs and symptoms to watch out for, how these conditions are diagnosed, and available treatment options such as medication and thyroidectomy surgery.
Understanding the Thyroid and Its Functions
The thyroid is a small gland situated at the base of the throat, shaped similarly to a butterfly. Despite its size, however, its functions are anything but minor. It produces two main hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones travel through the bloodstream and help regulate a range of bodily functions, from your child’s cognitive abilities to their digestion to their heartbeat.
Common Thyroid Problems in Children
Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are the most commonly diagnosed thyroid issues in children and adolescents. Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid fails to produce sufficient hormones, which in turn can lead to problems such as slowed growth, unexplained weight gain, and developmental delays. It can even impact academic performance, as children with untreated hypothyroidism may struggle with concentration and memory. Hypothyroidism may be congenital, meaning it’s present from birth, or acquired in late childhood or adolescence.
On the other hand, hyperthyroidism is characterized by an overactive thyroid that produces more hormones than the body requires. This can lead to rapid or irregular heartbeats, unexplained weight loss, and behavioural changes such as irritability or nervousness. Children with hyperthyroidism may also exhibit accelerated growth but in an unhealthy manner, possibly leading to premature bone ageing.
In both cases, early diagnosis and treatment are essential to managing the symptoms and avoiding long-term complications. Though less common, thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer are other conditions that can affect children. However, they are relatively rare and usually less aggressive than in adults.
Signs and Symptoms to Watch Out For
Recognising the signs of thyroid issues in children can be challenging. Symptoms often manifest subtly and may be easily dismissed or attributed to other common childhood ailments. For hypothyroidism, signs to look out for include sluggishness, unexplained weight gain, and sensitivity to cold. Your child might also show signs of constipation and have dry, scaly skin. It’s essential to note these symptoms because they can interfere with academic performance and social interactions, hampering your child’s overall quality of life.
In contrast, hyperthyroidism presents with different warning signs such as restlessness, irritability, weight loss, and an increased appetite. Physical symptoms like rapid or irregular heartbeat could be particularly alarming. If you observe any combination of these symptoms, consult a healthcare provider for a thorough evaluation. The sooner you can diagnose a thyroid issue, the more effectively you’ll be able to manage it, reducing the risk of long-term health complications.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Thyroid Disease in Kids
When it comes to diagnosing thyroid issues, healthcare providers typically start with a thorough physical examination and a review of your child’s medical and family history. Blood tests are often the next step, and they measure the levels of thyroid hormones and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) to evaluate how well the thyroid is functioning. Depending on the initial findings, your healthcare provider might also recommend additional tests like a thyroid ultrasound to examine the gland’s structure.
Treatment for thyroid problems largely depends on the type and severity of the condition. For hypothyroidism, the most common treatment is levothyroxine, a synthetic thyroid hormone that supplements those naturally produced by the body. This medication is usually a lifelong commitment and requires regular monitoring to ensure its effectiveness. On the other hand, hyperthyroidism may be treated with antithyroid medications that suppress the thyroid’s hormone production.
In rare cases, doctors may recommend more invasive procedures like radioactive iodine treatment or surgery, usually when medication isn’t effective or if there are concerns about thyroid nodules or cancer.
Being attuned to your child’s health goes beyond treating fevers and mending scraped knees. It also involves understanding complex systems like the thyroid gland. A proactive approach to identifying potential thyroid issues can significantly impact your child’s long-term well-being. Knowledge is your strongest tool in this endeavour, serving as the first step in safeguarding your child’s health for years to come.