An underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) is where your thyroid gland doesn't produce enough hormones.

Common signs of an underactive thyroid are tiredness, weight gain and feeling depressed.

An underactive thyroid can often be successfully treated by taking daily hormone tablets to replace the hormones your thyroid isn't making.

There's no way of preventing an underactive thyroid. Most cases are caused either by the immune system attacking the thyroid gland and damaging it, or by damage to the thyroid that occurs during some treatments for an overactive thyroid or thyroid cancer.

Read more about the causes of an underactive thyroid.

When to see your GP

Symptoms of an underactive thyroid are often similar to those of other conditions, and they usually develop slowly, so you may not notice them for years.

You should see your GP and ask to be tested for an underactive thyroid if you have symptoms including:

  • tiredness
  • weight gain
  • depression 
  • being sensitive to the cold
  • dry skin and hair
  • muscle aches

The only accurate way of finding out whether you have a thyroid problem is to have a thyroid function test, where a sample of blood is tested to measure your hormone levels.

Read more about testing for an underactive thyroid.

Who's affected

Both men and women can have an underactive thyroid, although it's more common in women. In the UK, it affects 15 in every 1,000 women and 1 in 1,000 men. Children can also develop an underactive thyroid.

Around 1 in 3,500-4,000 babies are born with an underactive thyroid (congenital hypothyroidism). All babies born in the UK are screened for congenital hypothyroidism using a blood spot test when the baby is about five days old.

Treating an underactive thyroid

Treatment for an underactive thyroid involves taking daily hormone replacement tablets, called levothyroxine, to raise your thyroxine levels. You'll usually need treatment for the rest of your life. However, with proper treatment, you should be able to lead a normal, healthy life.

If an underactive thyroid isn't treated, it can lead to complications, including heart diseasegoitre, pregnancy problems and a life-threatening condition called myxoedema coma (although this is very rare).

Read more about treating an underactive thyroid and the complications of an underactive thyroid.

The thyroid gland

The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, just in front of the windpipe (trachea).

One of its main functions is to produce hormones that help regulate the body's metabolism (the process that turns food into energy). These hormones are called triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).

Many of the body's functions slow down when the thyroid doesn't produce enough of these hormones.

Page last reviewed: 11/05/2015

Next review due: 11/05/2017