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Hypothyroidism in Children

What is hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid gland doesn't make enough thyroid hormone. The condition is more common in adults. But it’s the most common thyroid disorder in children. Not enough thyroid hormone leads to signs such as slow growth, lack of activity, and poor performance in school. In children it’s often referred to as acquired hypothyroidism.

What causes hypothyroidism?

The most common cause of acquired hypothyroidism is an autoimmune reaction. This is when the body's immune system slowly destroys the thyroid gland. An unborn baby’s thyroid function may be affected by:

  • Antibodies made by the mother’s body that attack the mother's thyroid
  • Treatment of a mother's thyroid disorder

Who is at risk for hypothyroidism?

A child is at risk for hypothyroidism if he or she has any of these:

  • A chromosomal disorder such as Down syndrome, Williams syndrome, or Turner syndrome
  • An autoimmune disorder such as type 1 diabetes or celiac disease
  • Not enough or too much iodine intake
  • Injury to the thyroid gland
  • Radiation to the head and neck

What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism?

The signs in children are different from those in adults. The most common sign in children is slowed or delayed growth. This may occur years before other signs occur. Other signs can occur a bit differently in each child, and can vary by age.

Signs in younger children (juvenile hypothyroidism) can include:

  • Slow growth that may cause short limbs
  • Delayed tooth development
  • Impaired school performance
  • Lack of energy
  • Inactivity
  • Slow bowel movements (constipation)
  • Dry skin

Signs in older children and teens (adolescent hypothyroidism) can include:

  • Slow growth
  • Delayed puberty
  • Hoarse voice
  • Slow speech
  • Droopy eyelids
  • Puffy and swollen face
  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin
  • Slow pulse
  • Weight gain
  • Impaired school performance
  • Lack of energy
  • Inactivity
  • Slow bowel movements (constipation)

The symptoms of hyperthyroidism can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is hypothyroidism diagnosed?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she may also ask about your family’s health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. Your child may also have tests, such as:

  • Blood test. These are done to check the levels of thyroid hormones. A child may have low levels of T4. This is the main hormone released from the thyroid. Or a child may have high levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is released into the blood from the pituitary gland. TSH increases the size, number, and activity of thyroid cells. TSH also stimulates the release of hormones that affect a person's metabolism.
  • CT scan. This test uses a series of X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan can show bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than regular X-rays. The thyroid gland may be scanned to check for problems.

How is hypothyroidism treated?

Your child's healthcare provider will consider his or her age, overall health, and other factors when advising treatment. Your child may need to see a pediatric endocrinologist. This is a doctor with extra training in treating children with hormone problems.

The goal of treatment is to restore hormone levels to normal and stimulate normal growth and development. Treatment may include taking thyroid hormones to increase the level of hormones in the body. Some children will need to take hormones for life. Other children may outgrow the disorder. Your child’s healthcare provider will check your child’s blood regularly during treatment. This will help to show if the treatment is working.     

What are possible complications of hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism can affect a child's normal growth and development. This includes sexual development. If untreated, the condition can also lead to:

  • Low red blood cell levels in the blood (anemia)
  • Low body temperature
  • Heart failure

Living with hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism can impair a child's normal growth and development. It’s important for a child to continue treatment until after puberty. This will help ensure a child reaches his or her normal adult height. Some children do not need to continue treatment into adulthood. Work with your child's healthcare providers to create an ongoing plan to manage your child’s condition.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your child's healthcare provider if you’re concerned about your child's growth, or if he or she has any signs of hypothyroidism.

Key points about hypothyroidism

  • Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid gland doesn't make enough thyroid hormone. It’s the most common thyroid disorder in children.
  • Not enough thyroid hormone leads to signs such as slow growth, lack of activity, and poor performance in school.
  • The most common cause is an autoimmune reaction that destroys the thyroid gland.
  • Treatment may include taking thyroid hormones to increase the level of hormones in the body. Some children will need to take hormones for life. Other children may outgrow the disorder.
  • Hypothyroidism can impair a child's normal growth and development. It’s important for a child to continue treatment until after puberty. This will help ensure a child reaches his or her normal adult height.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s health care provider:
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: Berry, Judith, PhD, APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Last Review Date: 11/05/2015
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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