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Usually, overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism, or thyrotoxicosis) is talked about in relation to women, in whom it affects about 2 in every 100. But while it is less common, hyperthyroidism in men does exist – and should be taken seriously.
Hyperthyroidism is the disorder in which the thyroid gland – the butterfly-shaped gland in your neck – produces too much thyroid hormone, thyroxine. This hormone is responsible for regulating your metabolism, weight, and heart rate, and it affects nearly every organ in your body.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism in men can include weight loss, muscle weakness and loss of muscle mass, disturbed sleep, erectile dysfunction, and low libido. It’s a scary list of symptoms, but an overactive thyroid is treatable, usually with medicine or surgery.
Overactive Thyroid in Men
Many men go through life not thinking much about their thyroid. That’s understandable. While about 2% of women experience an overactive thyroid, there are believed to be ten times fewer cases in men.
But this doesn’t mean hyperthyroidism in men doesn’t exist. It’s a severe illness that can significantly impact your well-being, sexual and mental health, and lifestyle. That’s why we need to take it seriously.
Here, we’re talking through all you need to know about an overactive thyroid in men – from the symptoms and causes to your treatment options.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a crucial butterfly-shaped gland that sits in your neck. Its job is to produce a hormone, thyroxine, that controls several processes across your body – such as the speed with which your body uses energy, your heart rate, your temperature regulation, and your weight.
When something happens to your thyroid that affects how it produces these hormones, you can notice problems in many different parts of your body.
The most common thyroid problems are:
- Hyperthyroidism. The thyroid disorder we’re discussing here. It happens when the gland produces too much thyroid hormone.
- Hypothyroidism. Also known as an underactive thyroid, this happens when the gland is not producing enough thyroxine. Find out more about hypothyroidism in men.
Both conditions have various causes that a medical expert will help you determine (more on those below). Men are less susceptible to the condition than women as it’s thought that women’s hormones – in fluctuation during and after pregnancy and menopause – can be a cause.
Recognising Symptoms of Hyperthyroidism in Men
One of the difficulties with thyroid problems is that the symptoms can be pretty difficult to recognise, as they can be mistaken for the simple wear and tear of everyday life. If you’re experiencing more than one of these symptoms, it could be down to your thyroid.
In all genders, common symptoms of an overactive thyroid include:
- Nervousness and irritability
- Oversensitivity to heat
- Trouble sleeping
- Chronic tiredness
- Muscle weakness
- Twitching, shaking, or trembling
- Heart palpitations (an irregular heartbeat or rapid heartbeat)
- Weight loss and reduced muscle mass
- An enlarged thyroid gland (known as a goitre or goiter)
- More frequent bowel movements
Male-Specific Hyperthyroidism Symptoms
While the common symptoms of an overactive thyroid are shared across genders, there are some symptoms you should be aware of that specifically affect men.
Firstly, let’s talk about sexual health. An overactive thyroid can, in some cases, cause the following:
- Erectile dysfunction (ED). While not a common symptom, studies have found that the link between hyperthyroidism and ED gets stronger as you age.
- Premature ejaculation. Hyperthyroidism is associated with premature ejaculation. Hypothyroidism, on the other hand, appears to be linked to delayed ejaculation.
- Semen quality. Studies have linked an overactive thyroid to reduced sperm health. This can make issues of infertility more common.
- Low libido. It’s common in people of both genders who suffer from thyroid problems.
Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism that affect men include:
- Hair loss. Not to be confused with male pattern baldness (which first occurs at your hairline and crown), thyroid hair loss is spread across your scalp. It can also affect the hair on the rest of your body.
- Osteoporosis. A condition most commonly found in women, hyperthyroidism can cause weakened and brittle bones in men too.
- Gynecomastia. In rare circumstances, an overactive thyroid can cause swelling of the male breast, known as gynecomastia.
- Loss of muscle strength. Hyperthyroidism usually causes you to lose weight. In men, this can lead to reduced muscle mass.
What Causes Hyperthyroidism in Men?
Overactive thyroid can be the result of many different causes. While in women it can be linked to hormonal changes associated with pregnancy, for example, men can rule out this cause. Instead, thyroid disease is usually caused by:
- Graves’ disease. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism in men (although it’s still more likely in women), Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks your thyroid, causing it to overproduce thyroxine. It’s most likely in people with a family history of thyroid conditions.
- Thyroid nodules. Non-cancerous lumps on your thyroid can cause too much thyroid hormone. They are most common in older people.
- Overactive pituitary gland. This gland produces the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which stimulates your thyroid. Sometimes, pituitary tumours or nodules can overproduce TSH, causing the thyroid to be overstimulated in turn.
- Iodine. If you take iodine supplements or eat a diet high in iodine (including some seafood), you may be at greater risk of thyroid conditions. Amiodarone, a medicine for irregular heartbeat, is high in iodine and is more likely to cause hyperthyroidism in men.
- Cancer. Thyroid cancer is three times more common in women than in men. However, it may be more aggressive in men. It is a rare cause of hyperthyroidism.
How Should Men Manage Hyperthyroidism?
There’s a tried and tested course of treatment for people with hyperthyroidism that has high success rates. It starts with some tests, and you may require medication or surgery.
- Thyroid function tests. Thyroid tests are blood tests that measure the amounts of thyroid hormones in your bloodstream. Specifically, they measure TSH, thyroxine, and the hormone known as triiodothyronine. Together, these tests should give you a pretty accurate picture of the cause of your problem.
Read more. Learn how to make sense of your thyroid function test results.
- Isotope scan. An essential tool in assessing hyperthyroidism is the isotope scan. This involves you ingesting a small (and harmless!) amount of a radioactive substance. Scans can monitor how much of the isotope is absorbed by the thyroid. This can tell you about possible causes.
Treatment Options for Men
Usually, hyperthyroidism is treated with the following medications:
- Thionamides. Drugs such as methimazole and carbimazole reduce the amount of thyroxine your thyroid gland produces. These can interact with erectile dysfunction medications such as Sildenafil – so inform your doctor if you are taking any other drugs.
- Beta-blockers. Medications such as propranolol can help to relieve symptoms like trembling and rapid heartbeat. However, be aware that reports claim these can cause erection difficulties.
- Radioactive iodine. A type of radiotherapy that can shrink your thyroid. Don’t worry – it’s not harmful to the rest of your body, as the radioactive element is very small.
- Surgery. In some cases, a thyroidectomy – removal of all or part of your thyroid – may be recommended by doctors.
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While not as common as in women, hyperthyroidism in men does exist. The thyroid dysfunction can show male-specific symptoms such as erectile problems, hair loss, and reduced muscle mass.
Luckily, though, treatment is well understood and highly successful. It all starts with a thyroid function test.