Pediatric Hypothyroidism Clinical Presentation

Updated: Dec 20, 2016
  • Author: Sunil Kumar Sinha, MD; Chief Editor: Sasigarn A Bowden, MD  more...
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The history depends on the age at presentation. [4]

Congenital hypothyroidism

Most infants with congenital hypothyroidism are asymptomatic during the neonatal period or display subtle and nonspecific symptoms of thyroid hormone deficiency.

The lack of symptoms initially may result, in part, from an ectopic thyroid gland with clinically significant reserve function, partial defects in thyroid hormone synthesis, or to the moderate amount of maternal T4 that crosses the placenta and is able to boost fetal levels within 25-50% of normal levels observed at birth.

Detection of congenital hypothyroidism based on signs and symptoms alone may be delayed until age 6-12 weeks or older because of the protean clinical presentation and requires a high index of suspicion by the health care provider.

Only about 5% of infants with hypothyroidism are detected by clinical criteria before the biochemical screen alerts the clinician to confirm the diagnosis.

The following are among the earliest signs of hypothyroidism:

  • Prolonged gestation

  • Elevated birth weight

  • Delayed stooling after birth, constipation

  • Prolonged indirect jaundice

  • Poor feeding, poor management of secretions

  • Hypothermia

  • Decreased activity level

  • Noisy respirations

  • Hoarse cry

Acquired hypothyroidism

The clinical features of acquired hypothyroidism are typically insidious in onset.

  • Goiter: Patients with CLT (ie, Hashimoto thyroiditis) most commonly present with an asymptomatic goiter. Parents may report that their child's neck looks "full" or "swollen." Children may complain of local symptoms of dysphagia, hoarseness, or of a pressure sensation in their neck and/or throat. A patient with other causes of hypothyroidism may have an enlarged thyroid gland.

  • Slow growth, delayed osseous maturation, and increased weight: Mild weight gain despite decreased appetite is characteristic of the child who has a hypothyroid condition. Moderate-to-severe obesity in children is not typical for hypothyroidism. Furthermore, children with hypothyroidism manifest a decreased growth rate, a more constant finding than weight gain. In contrast, children with exogenous obesity typically have an increased growth velocity.

  • Lethargy

  • Decreased energy, dry skin, and puffiness

  • Sleep disturbance, typically obstructive sleep apnea

  • Cold intolerance and constipation

  • Heat intolerance, weight loss, and tremors: These are typical symptoms of hyperthyroidism. However, approximately 5-10% of children with CLT initially present with symptoms of toxic thyroiditis. This clinical picture may suggest a diagnosis of Graves disease. The thyrotoxic phase of CLT can be differentiated from Graves disease in that CLT is transient, is not associated with exophthalmos, and is usually associated with a decreased and nonuniform uptake of radioactive iodine. This hashitoxicosis phase is usually followed by the more characteristic hypothyroid phase.

  • Sexual pseudoprecocity

    • Parents may bring their child in for evaluation secondary to concern about testicular enlargement in boys or early breast development or onset of vaginal bleeding in girls.

    • The exact mechanism of sexual pseudoprecocity is not fully understood; however, TRH-induced TSH excess is thought to be the common stimulator of the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) receptor.

    • Serum FSH and luteinizing hormone (LH) levels are elevated into the pubertal range. Mounting evidence suggests that increased serum levels of prolactin produce resistance to LH stimulation of the gonads, perhaps leading to hypothalamic gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) production and stimulation of pituitary LH and FSH release.

    • The short stature and delayed bone age observed in children with hypothyroidism help distinguish sexual pseudoprecocity from true precocious puberty.

    • Sexual pseudoprecocity reverses with adequate thyroid replacement.

  • Galactorrhea: This condition develops in primary hypothyroidism secondary to TRH secretion from the hypothalamus. TRH stimulates the anterior pituitary to release TSH and prolactin. Galactorrhea resolves as prolactin concentrations fall with thyroid replacement.



If the newborn with congenital hypothyroidism is not identified by newborn screening and receives no replacement therapy, clinical manifestations of congenital hypothyroidism evolve during the first weeks after birth. Note that although the signs listed below are classic for congenital hypothyroidism, they may be subtle or absent. Recognition of this disorder has been enhanced by systematic newborn screening for the past 30 years.

Physical signs of congenital hypothyroidism include the following:

  • Bradycardia

  • Elevated weight

  • Sluggish behavior

  • Rare cry or hoarse cry (hoarse cry is secondary to myxedema of the vocal cords)

  • Large fontanelles

  • Myxedema of the eyelids, hands, and/or scrotum

  • Large protruding tongue (secondary to accumulation of myxedema in the tongue)

  • Goiter

  • Umbilical hernia

  • Delayed relaxation of deep tendon reflexes (The Achilles tendon reflex appears to be most sensitive to effects of hypothyroidism.)

  • Cool dry skin

  • Enlarged cardiac silhouette, usually because of pericardial effusion

  • Prolonged conduction time and low voltage on electrocardiogram (ECG)

  • Hypothermia

The signs of acquired hypothyroidism can include many physical findings observed with congenital hypothyroidism, such as the following:

  • Decreased growth velocity

  • Bradycardia

  • Mild obesity (5-15 lb over 6 mo) or morbid obesity (>20 lb overweight), which is seldom caused by hypothyroidism alone (The evaluation of obesity often includes assessment of serum TSH and free T4 levels.)

  • Immature upper-to-lower body proportions

  • Dry coarse hair

  • Delayed dentition

  • Precocious sexual development

  • Cool, dry, carotenemic skin

  • Brittle nails

  • Delayed relaxation phase of deep tendon reflexes

  • Goiter formation

    • This may occur secondary to the effects of TSH receptor–stimulating antibodies, inflammatory lymphocytic infiltration, or compensatory hyperplasia because of decreased serum T4 and increased TSH concentrations.

    • Typically, the thyroid gland is enlarged diffusely, although it may not be enlarged symmetrically.

    • Upon palpation, the thyroid gland may initially be soft but then takes on a firm feeling with rubbery consistency and a seedlike surface secondary to hyperplasia of the normal lobular architecture

  • Myxedema (much rarer in children than in adults)

  • Dull facial expression



Congenital hypothyroidism

Approximately 75% of infants with congenital hypothyroidism have defects in thyroid gland development, 10% have hereditary defects in thyroid hormone synthesis or uptake, 5% have secondary (pituitary) or tertiary (hypothalamus) hypothyroidism, and 10% have transient hypothyroidism.

  • Thyroid dysgenesis: Defective thyroid gland development accounts for most instances of congenital hypothyroidism. Thyroid dysgenesis occurs sporadically in most cases but is occasionally familial because of mutations or deletions of genes (TSHR, PAX8, NKX2-1, FOXE1, and NKX2-5) that are involved in fetal thyroid formation. Thyroid dysgenesis ranges in severity from thyroid aplasia or hypoplasia to functional ectopic thyroid tissue. Approximately 40-60% of infants with thyroid gland dysgenesis have some functioning tissue. Laboratory and imaging studies facilitate the determination of the degree of dysgenesis. Thyroid agenesis is suggested by a low serum T4 level with an elevated serum TSH level and undetectable serum thyroglobulin. Newborns with ectopic or hypoplastic thyroid glands manifest low serum T4, elevated serum TSH, and measurable levels of circulating thyroglobulin. Imaging aids in confirming the diagnosis of aplastic, hypoplastic, or ectopic thyroid.

  • Familial thyroid dyshormonogenesis: Rare autosomal recessive inborn errors of thyroid hormone synthesis, secretion, or uptake also cause congenital hypothyroidism. The following 8 inborn errors have been identified:

    • Failure to respond to TSH secondary to defective activation of the thyroid receptor and related cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) signal transduction pathway

    • Defect in trapping of iodide secondary to sodium-iodide symporter failure

    • Defective oxidation of iodide to iodine secondary to thyroid peroxidase deficiency

    • Defective coupling of iodotyrosines

    • Deiodination defects

    • Defective thyroglobulin synthesis

    • Defective proteolysis of thyroglobulin

    • Release of T3 and T4 into the circulation

  • Partial peripheral resistance to thyroid hormones (autosomal dominant defect): Patients relate a family history of goiter with euthyroidism or hypothyroidism in the face of elevated serum levels of T4 or T3 but nonsuppressed serum TSH concentrations.

  • Hypopituitarism

  • Transplacental passage of maternal TSH-binding inhibitory antibodies: This can cause transient neonatal hypothyroidism. In mothers with autoimmune thyroiditis, immunoglobulin G (IgG) antithyroid antibodies can be transmitted across the placenta. These antibodies block binding of TSH to its receptor on the fetal thyroid. The half-life of these antibodies is approximately 1 week, and this form of congenital hypothyroidism usually resolves within 2-3 months of life. Although these infants are asymptomatic, they require thyroid hormone replacement until the pituitary-thyroid axis recovers. Monitoring the infant's serum titer of maternal antibodies is unnecessary, although monitoring serum TSH values is essential for guiding therapy.

  • Maternal exposure to radioiodine: The fetal thyroid is able to trap iodide by 70-75 days' gestation. Hypothyroidism can develop if the mother is exposed to radioiodine to treat Graves disease or thyroid carcinoma.

  • Goitrogens: These include iodides found in certain asthma medications, amiodarone, neonatal exposure to iodine-containing antiseptics, propylthiouracil, or methimazole.

Acquired hypothyroidism

See the list below:

  • CLT (ie, autoimmune thyroiditis, Hashimoto thyroiditis) is the most common cause of acquired hypothyroidism and goiter in children living in iodine-sufficient areas. An increased frequency of CLT occurs in children with trisomy 21 syndrome, Ulrich-Turner syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, or other autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes mellitus. CLT appears to require both an environmental trigger and a genetically determined defect in immune surveillance.

  • Evidence suggests that the disease develops secondary to a defect in cell-mediated immunity whereby suppressor T lymphocytes fail to destroy forbidden clones of thyroid-directed T lymphocytes, which form as part of random immunologic differentiation. The attack on the thyroid involves natural killer cells and the complement cascade. Various thyroid autoantibodies (antithyroglobulin antibody, antithyroid peroxidase antibody) are demonstrable in the serum but are not believed to play a role in the pathogenesis of CLT.

  • Clinical manifestations of CLT vary depending on the type and predominance of thyroid antibodies produced. Most children present with an asymptomatic goiter and may be biochemically euthyroid, although compensated hypothyroidism and symptomatic hypothyroidism are more common presentations. Rarely, the child with CLT may be symptomatic with a small atrophied gland. A small percentage of children with CLT initially present with transient symptoms of hyperthyroidism. This short-lived thyrotoxic phase may be secondary to autonomous release of stored T4 and T3 (with progressive inflammatory lymphocytic infiltration of the thyroid) or secondary to an initial predominance of TSH-receptor stimulating immunoglobulins (termed hashitoxicosis).

  • Subacute thyroiditis is a rare disorder in children. Typically, a painful thyroid gland is accompanied by signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism, with elevated serum T4 and suppressed serum TSH. Patients with this condition may present later manifesting a hypothyroid phase with goiter. The clinical hallmarks are painful swelling of the thyroid, usually after a viral infection, with lymphocytosis and elevated sedimentation rate. The inflammation results in autonomous release of thyroid hormone and a thyrotoxic phase, followed by a euthyroid phase and then a hypothyroid phase. Each phase lasts at least 1 week and is commonly followed by a return to an euthyroid state, depending on the degree of tissue damage. Treatment of the thyroid disorder is usually unnecessary.

  • Drug-induced hypothyroidism can result from use of thioamides, lithium, amiodarone, and excess dietary iodine. Exposure to these substances most often results in biochemical evidence of hypothyroidism in the absence of clinical symptoms.

  • Endemic goiter results from nutritional iodine deficiency with or without environmental goitrogen exposure. Endemic regions include high mountain plateaus and other areas that do not have ready access to salt water or seafood.

  • Euthyroid sick syndrome involves the following:

    • T4 is converted in peripheral tissues to bioactive T3 by thyroxine-5'-deiodinase enzyme. This enzyme is also responsible for clearing small amounts of reverse T3 (rT3), which are the by-products of T4 metabolism. Many nonthyroidal illnesses are associated with inhibition of 5'-deiodinase activity in peripheral tissues, resulting in a decrease of circulating bioactive T3 and an increase in reverse T3 (rT3).

    • Examples include acute or chronic severe illness, surgery, trauma, fasting, malnutrition, and use of certain drugs. TSH secretion is also decreased and does not appropriately respond to falling serum levels of T4. The classic findings include low or normal TSH, low T4 and free T4, low T3 and free T3, and elevated rT3 levels in serum. Thyroid hormone replacement is not needed because the disorder resolves with improvement of the underlying disease.

  • Childhood onset of congenital hypothyroidism secondary to hypoplastic or ectopic gland, which becomes unable to meet the demands of the growing child. Radioiodine uptake imaging assists in making the diagnosis.

  • Irradiation of the thyroid gland may be a cause. For example, the Chernobyl disaster of 1987 released massive quantities of radioactive iodine and cesium into the environment, leading to an increase in the subsequent incidence of both hypothyroidism and thyroid malignancy.

  • Infiltrative and storage disorders of the thyroid gland, including histiocytosis X and cystinosis, may be associated with hypothyroidism. In these instances, the primary disease is usually evident prior to the development of hypothyroidism.

  • Surgical excision may be associated with hypothyroidism.