Hypothyroidism and Pregnancy

Hypothyroidism and Pregnancy

By Cheretta A. Clerkley

Hypothyroidism can be very dangerous, both to mom and baby, so it’s important for women who are pregnant or who are planning to become pregnant to understand how these changes might affect them, and what the signs of hypothyroidism can be. Many women find that their thyroid symptoms either start during pregnancy or get worse while they are pregnant. The hormonal changes in the body during pregnancy can create huge shifts in the body’s overall hormonal health.

What is hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism is a condition wherein the thyroid does not produce sufficient levels of thyroid hormones. An underactive thyroid can affect many areas of life, and the risk of developing this condition is often elevated during pregnancy. The risk also increases as a woman ages. Since many women are starting their families later in life, waiting first to have a career, an increasing number of women are suffering from hypothyroidism.

What are signs of hypothyroidism in pregnancy?

Hypothyroidism affects every individual differently, yet there are some symptoms that, when combined, can indicate a problem. These might include:

  • Hair loss
  • Dry hair and skin
  • Frequent hoarseness
  • Inability to tolerate being cold
  • Dull facial expressions
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Weight gain
  • Constipation
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Muscle cramping
  • Loss of eyebrow hair
  • Slow speech
  • Confusion

The problem with this list is the fact that many, if not most, of these symptoms can easily be attributed to pregnancy. For this reason, many pregnant women do not know they are suffering from hypothyroidism, to the detriment of themselves and their developing babies. Regular medical care during pregnancy with a doctor who knows how to identify these problems is helpful, especially for moms who are at higher risk for developing hypothyroidism.

The Effect of Hypothyroidism on the Developing Baby

One of the reasons women need to be careful about hypothyroidism is the fact that the condition has great potential to affect the baby. In the first months of pregnancy, the baby does not produce any thyroid hormones. This means the baby must rely on the mom for all of his/her thyroid hormones. A woman suffering from hypothyroidism does not have enough thyroid hormones to give the baby what he/she needs.

These hormones are essential in the baby’s growth and brain development. Without adequate levels of thyroid hormones, the baby may not develop and grow properly, leading to poor intrauterine growth and the potential for brain defects.

Unfortunately, in the earliest stages of pregnancy, many women do not know they are pregnant. Crucial brain development occurs before a woman even discovers that she is expecting. For this reason, women who are allowing for the possibility of pregnancy need to be certain that their thyroids are functioning well — through proper diagnostic care before pregnancy.

Screening for Hypothyroidism During Pregnancy

Some experts believe that pregnant women should be screened for thyroid disease, because of the way the disease masks itself by mirroring pregnancy symptoms. Other doctors believe that the woman should be tested only if there is suspicion of a problem. If your doctor decides you should be screened for hypothyroidism, the screening involves a simple blood test to measure the thyroid hormone levels. When the thyroid-stimulating hormone levels are high and thyroxine levels are below the normal average, hypothyroidism is often suspected.

Treating Hypothyroidism

If a woman is diagnosed with hypothyroidism during pregnancy, she will need to start thyroid hormone replacement therapy. The dosage of the thyroid replacement drugs will depend on the woman’s levels of thyroid hormones. These will need to be tested at regular intervals during pregnancy to ensure that the dosage does not need to be adjusted. When the baby is born, the newborn screening will include a test of thyroid hormone levels, to ensure the baby has proper hormone levels. After birth, the woman’s dosage will need to be re-evaluated as her body returns to normal.

Hypothyroidism during pregnancy is very serious. However, treatment is available as long as a timely diagnosis is made. Women with hypothyroidism can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies with the right prenatal care and the help of an endocrinologist.

Cheretta A. Clerkley has been the strategic marketing health care professional for Hormone Health Network. She has been working for over 10 years in direct patient education and focuses on the topic of hormone health. 

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.