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Thyroid Problems in Children

Congenital hypothyroidism, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can strike kids. Know the symptoms and treatment.

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The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck, and although it is small, it produces hormones that impact critical body functions, such as energy level and heart rate. When the thyroid stops working properly in kids, it can affect everything from growth and weight gain to school performance.

Weight & the Thyroid

Because excess weight can make the thyroid function improperly, kids who are very heavy may experience a borderline underfunctioning of the thyroid. “We tend to watch those kids rather than treat right away for hypothyroidism,” says Dr. Garber. In this situation, losing weight can normalize the thyroid. However, in general doctors do not recommend losing weight as a treatment for thyroid disorders.

Thyroid disorders in children are caused by autoimmune disease and are relatively common, says Evan Garber, DO, attending pediatric endocrinologist at Nemours/AI duPont Hospital in Wilmington, DE, especially in kids who already have an autoimmune condition, like Type 1 diabetes. Thyroid disorders affect more girls than boys, typically during adolescence. Family history may slightly increase the risk of thyroid problems, but doctors don’t recommend screening for thyroid disorders unless they suspect a problem.

There are three types of thyroid disorders: hypothyroidism, also called Hashimoto’s disease; hyperthyroidism, also known as Grave’s disease; and congenital hypothyroidism. The first two disorders present later in life; the last, almost immediately.

Congenital hypothyroidism

Margherita Smith’s daughter Scarlett was a bit jaundiced at birth and perhaps a little sleepy, but nothing raised a red flag for the new mother from Philadelphia. When Scarlett was 9 days old, however, newborn-screening test results revealed that she had congenital hypothyroidism.

About 1 in 2,000 babies is born in the US each year with this particular thyroid disorder. Symptoms such as jaundice, an enlarged tongue and an umbilical hernia present in extreme cases, but most babies don’t show any signs of thyroid troubles. Because delayed treatment could result in significant intellectual disabilities and growth abnormalities, babies nationwide are screened at birth for this condition.

The treatment for babies with congenital hypothyroidism is a once-daily medication in pill form that can be mixed with breast milk or formula and placed directly in the mouth. And while Scarlett will take the medication for the rest of her life, at 3½, she’s sharp, active and growing properly, her mother reports: “You would never know. She never shows any signs or side effects.”

Next page: symptoms of and treatment for hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism

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