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When Patients Won't Take Their Thyroid Medication

The Health Implications of Failing to Take Prescription Thyroid Drugs

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Updated May 30, 2014

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I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine. Her 20-something daughter, who was diagnosed with autoimmune hypothyroidism, decided that she didn't want to take her thyroid medication. The daughter was saying that since starting her treatment, her irregular, scanty periods had become more regular, and somewhat heavier. Because she liked lighter, less frequent periods, she decided to stop taking her thyroid hormone replacement medication. She felt that the benefits she'd noticed since starting treatment -- she lost weight, stopped losing hair, and had more energy -- were just not worth it.

She's not alone in refusing to take her prescribed medications. I've heard from other patients who don't take their thyroid medications.

What are some common reasons people give for not taking their thyroid medication?

  • I don't feel any different/better, so why should I keep taking it?
  • I didn't start having symptoms until I started taking the medication.
  • I don't like taking any prescription medications.
  • I can't afford it.
  • I have side effects I don't like when I take the medication.
  • I can't remember to take it every day.
  • I'd rather just take natural remedies, like herbs or vitamins.
Some people who are hyperthyroid have specific reasons why they don't want to take their prescribed antithyroid drugs:
  • I'm worried about the side effects. (Antithyroid drugs do have a very small risk of serious side effects.)
  • I actually like how I feel when I'm hyperthyroid.
If you don't take your prescribed medication, it's worth at least considering the implications to your health and well-being.

Hypothyroid? The Risks of Not Taking Your Thyroid Hormone Replacement Medication

If you are hypothyroid -- whether due to Hashimoto's, Graves' disease treatment, thyroid surgery, or congenital hypothyroidism -- failing to take your thyroid hormone replacement medication -- i.e., levothyroxine, or natural desiccated thyroid -- -- can pose a number of risks to your health. These risks can include the following:
  • Blood pressure irregularities
  • Low body temperature, feeling perpetually cold
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • Elevated cholesterol, treatment-resistant high cholesterol
  • Weight gain
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Premature labor
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Loss or reduction of sex drive
  • Muscle weakness
  • Constipation
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Hair loss
  • Swollen hands, feet and face
  • Growth of thyroid nodules, increasing goiter size
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Myxedema coma and death
Of particular importance, thyroid cancer patients who fail to take their thyroid hormone replacement medication at the prescribed dosage actually increase their risk of thyroid cancer recurrence.

Hyperthyroid? The Risks of Not Taking Your Antithyroid Medication

If you are hyperthyroid -- whether due to Graves' disease, or toxic nodules, among other reasons -- failing to take your antithyroid medication -- for example, methimazole or propylthiouracil/PTU -- can pose a number of risks to your health, including:
  • Debilitating weight loss or weight gain
  • Increased appetite
  • Nervousness, anxiety, panic attacks
  • Heat intolerance, sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Goiter/enlarged thyroid
  • Muscle weakness
  • Insomnia
  • Rapid pulse
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Itching
  • Tremors
  • Hair loss
  • Protruding eyes
  • Stroke, heart attack, thyroid storm, and death

Rethinking Your Excuses For Not Taking Medication

Clearly, there are sensible health reasons to take your prescribed thyroid medication. But if you are not taking medications due to some of the above reasons, here are some thoughts.

"I don't feel any different/better, so why should I take it?"
Don't expect thyroid hormone replacement medication to work like an aspirin for a headache. If you have just started taking your thyroid hormone replacement medication, it can take weeks, or even months to start noticing a difference in how you feel. If you have been taking your medication for a number of months, and you still don't feel well, you may need a dosage adjustment or a change in medication -- not a complete stop in your medication regimen. Read Help, I'm Hypothyroid and I Still Don't Feel Well for more ideas and information.

"I didn't start having symptoms until I started taking the medication."
Some patients have adrenal fatigue, and when they begin thyroid medication, symptoms actually worsen because the underlying adrenal problem have not been addressed. Read Adrenal Fatigue/Adrenal Exhaustion for more information. Also, if the primary new symptom you're experiencing is hair loss, note that levothyroxine can cause hair loss in some patients. To avoid hair loss, you may need a different medication. This topic is discussed at greater length in Hair Loss Solutions For Thyroid Patients.

"I don't like taking any prescription medications, I'd rather just take natural remedies, like herbs or vitamins."
Unfortunately, there isn't a natural or herbal replacement for thyroid hormone. Just like a diabetic needs insulin, a crucial hormone for survival, you need thyroid hormone. Read Can Your Hypothyroidism Be Treated Naturally?

"I can't afford it."
Thyroid medication is not particularly expensive. Even if you pay out of pocket, the most costly thyroid medications shouldn't run more than around $30 a month, and can be as low as $4 a month for generics. And you may even be eligible for brand name prescription drugs through various low-cost programs. Read How to Get Free or Low-Cost Prescription Drugs.

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