Understanding Hashimoto’s Disease

Monday 22 February 2021
Thyroid Disorders

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Jubil Tom, MD
on 28 April 2021

Table of Contents


I. What is Hashimoto’s Disease?

II. Risk Factors and Complications

III. Symptoms and Cause

IV. Hashimoto’s Disease and Pregnancy

V. Diagnosis and Treatment


What is Hashimoto’s Disease?       

Hashimoto’s disease is a common autoimmune disorder that affects roughly five percent of the American population. It is also known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, and autoimmune thyroiditis. Hashimoto’s disease is the most common cause of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) in the U.S. [1] Whereas Tapazole (methimazole) is available to treat an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), an underactive thyroid is typically prescribed desiccated thyroid or Synthroid (levothyroxine). 

The thyroid is part of the endocrine system. The endocrine system plays an important role in producing hormones that coordinate many bodily functions. Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune disorder because it occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks its own thyroid. When the immune system compromises the thyroid, the thyroid may start to produce less thyroid hormone. When a compromised thyroid causes hypothyroidism, metabolism decreases and the body’s ability to absorb iodine can weaken. [2]

Risk Factors and Complications 

Hashimoto’s disease is most likely to affect women between the ages of 40 and 60. It is approximately eight times more common in women than men. Family history can also be a factor. Having a family member that has the condition can increase the risk of developing Hashimoto’s disease. [1]

a woman feeling her thyroid

Because it is an autoimmune disorder, having a pre-existing autoimmune disorder can increase the risk of developing Hashimoto’s disease. The following conditions are also linked to Hashimoto’s disease:

  • Addison’s disease (hormonal disorder)
  • Autoimmune hepatitis (liver disorder)
  • Celiac disease (digestive disorder)
  • Lupus (chronic, body-wide disorder)
  • Pernicious anemia (vitamin B12 deficiency)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (joint disorder)
  • Sjögren’s syndrome (dry eyes and mouth)
  • Type 1 diabetes (high blood sugar)
  • Vitiligo (skin pigment disorder) [1]

Hashimoto’s disease often leads to hypothyroidism which can contribute to high cholesterol and heart disease. If hypothyroidism becomes severe, it is called myxedema. Myxedema occurs when the thyroid becomes extremely underactive, but it can lead to life-threatening complications such as a coma. [1] 

Symptoms and Cause

Signs of Hashimoto’s disease do not present themselves immediately. The first symptom of this disease is typically swelling at the front of your throat. Because Hashimoto’s disease involves the immune system attacking the thyroid and causing hypothyroidism, underactive thyroid symptoms will occur. The following are hypothyroidism symptoms that may indicate Hashimoto’s disease:

  • Brittle nails
  • Constipation
  • Depression or lapses in memory
  • Enlarged tongue
  • Excessive menstrual bleeding
  • Fatigue and sluggishness
  • Hair loss
  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Muscle weakness, tenderness, and stiffness
  • Pale and dry skin
  • Puffy face
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Weight gain [3]

a man experiencing fatigue

Hashimoto’s Disease and Pregnancy

If Hashimoto’s disease is left untreated, it can affect both the mother and the baby. The good news is that many thyroid medicines can prevent problems and are safe to be taken during pregnancy. Pregnant women who are taking thyroid hormone medication may need a higher dose while pregnant. Thyroid hormones are very important for pregnant women because they ensure the healthy development of the baby’s brain and nervous system. 

The baby’s own thyroid only begins to work at around 12 weeks. Before that, especially in the first trimester, the baby will depend on the mother’s supply of thyroid hormone. Due to the vital role thyroid hormone plays in both the mother and the child, women who have Hashimoto’s disease should contact their doctor as soon as they are expecting. [4] 

an expecting mother

Diagnosis and Treatment 

Hashimoto’s disease is most commonly diagnosed based on symptoms of hypothyroidism. An enlarged thyroid gland, also known as a goiter, is one of the telltale signs that doctors may look for. In addition to a physical examination, doctors may test for hypothyroidism in a lab by looking for low levels of thyroid hormone. An elevated level of thyroid peroxidase (TPO) antibodies in your blood can indicate that Hashimoto’s disease is present. [5] 

The symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease are commonly treated with Synthroid (levothyroxine). In the right doses, Synthroid can be inexpensive yet effective in restoring healthy thyroid hormone production. [6] Desiccated thyroid is thyroid extract and can be used either as a primary treatment medication or as an alternative to Synthroid. Desiccated thyroid is regarded by some as a more natural source of thyroid hormone. [7]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.