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The thyroid gland is an essential organ. Your body relies on the hormones it produces to regulate your metabolism. Without those necessary hormones, you can develop hypothyroidism, leading to long-term complications if you do not get treatment.
In short, can you live without a thyroid? Yes, but you will need lifelong treatment with thyroid hormone replacement medication.
People can lose their thyroid or have a poor-functioning thyroid for several reasons.
The most common reason people lose their thyroid gland is a surgical procedure called a thyroidectomy. This procedure usually occurs to treat thyroid cancer by removing some or all of the thyroid gland. Sometimes, a doctor will also do a thyroidectomy to treat thyroid nodules, goiter, or enlargement if it interferes with your breathing ability or is otherwise concerning.
Some people are born with a malformed thyroid gland or without one altogether. Although it is rare in developed countries, some babies are born with congenital hypothyroidism, leading to long-term intellectual and physical disabilities if left untreated.
There are some instances where you still physically have a thyroid gland, but it is under-functioning:
Radioactive iodine (RA)
RA is used to treat hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) or Graves' disease. An overactive thyroid increases your metabolism, which can have damaging health consequences. Often, RA overtreats the thyroid gland, leading to an underactive state. In these cases, people go from hyperthyroidism to hypothyroidism.
This autoimmune condition is one of the leading causes of hypothyroidism. In Hashimoto's thyroiditis, the immune system attacks your thyroid gland, causing chronic inflammation that eventually suppresses your ability to make thyroid hormones.
The short answer is yes. People can live full, long lives without a thyroid (or with an underactive thyroid) if they take medication to replace the absence of thyroid hormones in their body with thyroid medication.
People can live for a very long time without thyroid hormones, but they will develop symptoms that decrease their quality of life. A lack of thyroid hormones can also increase your risk for other health conditions that can shorten your life expectancy, including heart disease and obesity.
The most severe consequence of not having thyroid hormone in your body is myxedema coma or death. Myxedema is a term that generally denotes severe hypothyroidism. A myxedema coma is a rare, life-threatening resulting from long-standing hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism due to any cause can cause myxedema coma if left untreated.
However, long before this happens, you'll start to experience other side effects which indicate that your thyroid isn't functioning correctly. Many people live for several years without even knowing they have an underactive thyroid. Eventually, symptoms do develop, which prompts them to see their doctor.
If you don't have a thyroid, your body can't make thyroid hormones. Without replacement, you'll develop signs and symptoms of underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism):
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Brain fog
- Dry skin and thinning hair
- Joint pain and muscle weakness
- Depression and sadness
- Trouble sleeping
The thyroid gland releases triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). With no thyroid or an underactive thyroid, you need to take a medication that replaces these hormones. Levothyroxine is one of the most commonly used drugs because it works just like the thyroid hormone thyroxine (T4) in your body. Some people may also take a T3 medication which replaces the thyroid hormone triiodothyronine, the acitve form of thyroid hormone.
Take special considerations to ensure you get the most out of your thyroid medication. Firstly, you will want to take your medication at the same time every day. Some medications require you to take them on an empty stomach. Secondly, your other medications and supplements may interfere with your thyroid medication, so you will want to be wary of those interactions.
Regular follow-up care
You will need to check your thyroid function regularly. Sometimes, your dose may need to be adjusted if you experience symptoms or are experiencing other changes like pregnancy.
Medication is necessary if you do not have a thyroid. However, medication is often not the only solution to improve your symptoms. You will likely benefit from making lifestyle modifications, including:
- Eating a thyroid-healthy diet
- Participating in regular physical exercise
- Seeing your doctor regularly for routine health screenings
- Adopting stress management strategies
Overall, people living without a thyroid or an underactive thyroid do not have a reduced life expectancy or shortened life span if they get treatment.
However, the reason you do not have a thyroid can affect how long you live. For example, people ages 45 and older who had a thyroidectomy to treat differentiated thyroid cancer (DTC) may expect lower life expectancy. With that said, people younger than age 45 with DTC had no significant changes in life expectancy.
Treating an underactive or absent thyroid can improve your life quality and decrease your risk for preventable diseases like heart disease.
If you suffer from symptoms that may indicate your thyroid is not functioning optimally, it may be time to meet with a thyroid doctor.