Your Children and the Risk of Thyroid Disease

Children of thyroid patients face a variety of risk factors for thyroid disease. istockphoto

Many thyroid sufferers don't realize that thyroid disease can also affect children -- even in utero, and as newborns. It's also important to know that there are certain types of thyroid disease that have a genetic or hereditary component that can put children at greater risk of developing a thyroid condition.

For example, if you or any of your first-degree family members -- parents, siblings, and children --  have any autoimmune disease, or autoimmune thyroid problems such as Hashimoto's disease or Graves' disease in particular -- your children face an increased risk of developing an autoimmune thyroid condition, as well as other autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmune thyroid disease can show up at any time during infancy or childhood, but they more commonly appear during puberty and adulthood. Thyroid conditions are also as up to ten times more likely to affect girls than boys.

In addition to the familiar risk associated with autoimmune disease, there are a number of other thyroid trigger factors and thyroid risk factors for children.

For example, a small percentage of newborns suffer from congenital hypothyroidism at birth. Congenital hypothyroidism results from either an improperly formed gland, or as a result of antithyroid medications ingested by the mother during pregnancy. These infants require early testing -- and thyroid testing is included in the standard heel stick test for various health issues that most newborns undergo. Infants with congenital hypothyroidism require rapid and proper treatment to avoid lifelong complications and cognitive impairment due to hypothyroidism and lack of sufficient thyroid hormone.


During pregnancy and after birth, fetuses and newborns also face the risk of developing thyroid problems if their mothers have been improperly or poorly treated for Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism. If a mother has been overmedicated with antithyroid drugs, the baby can be born with transient hypothyroidism.

If the mother is not sufficiently treated for her hyperthyroidism, the baby can be born with transient hyperthyroidism, or with elevated antibody levels that can take weeks or months to clear out of the newborn's bloodstream.

Fetuses, infants and children are also at risk of developing thyroid problems -- including thyroid nodules, hypothyroidism, and thyroid cancer -- as a result of radiation exposure. Children's thyroid glands are especially sensitive to the detrimental effects of radiation. This radiation exposure is typically a result of radiation-laden medical procedures (i.e., x-rays, or contrast scans) undergone by their mothers while pregnant, or by environmental exposures -- such as the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear disasters of past years.

It's estimated that as many as 5 to 10 percent of thyroid cancers are due to genetic or hereditary factors. This means that children who have siblings, parents, or grandparents with thyroid cancer or other endocrine cancers  -- or who have family members who have tested positive for genetic mutations like the RET mutation -- are at an increased risk of developing thyroid cancer as well.

There is also a higher risk of thyroid cancer in children who have a family history of multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN).


Infants and children with thyroid conditions may have symptoms, including 

  • Jumpiness
  • Sleep problems
  • School performance issues
  • Weight loss or failure to thrive
  • Low appetite, or concerns regarding possible anorexia or eating disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Loose stools or diarrhea
  • A wide eyed stare or eye bulging
  • Feeling unusually cold or hot
  • Low energy
  • Puffiness or swelling
  • Hoarseness of voice
  • Brittle hair 
  • Dry skin
  • Easy bruising
  • Delayed bone age on x-ray
  • Delayed puberty (teens)
  • Galactorrhea (white breast discharge)
  • Early puberty 
  • Headaches
  • Vision problems

More Information

Having Down Syndrome also puts a child at greater risk of having a thyroid condition.

Fukushima's Children Facing High Rate of Thyroid Irregularities

Hyperthyroidism in Pregnancy and Neonatal Hyperthyroidism: Implications for Newborns

Understanding and Diagnosing Congenital Hypothyroidism in Infants and Children

Treatment of Congenital Hypothyroidism in Infants and Children

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