Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of hypothyroidism worldwide. In persons living in iodine-replete areas, causes are congenital, spontaneous because of chronic autoimmune disease (atrophic autoimmune thyroiditis or goitrous autoimmune thyroiditis [Hashimoto's thyroiditis]), or iatrogenic because of goitrogens, drugs, or destructive treatment for thyrotoxicosis. Screening for congenital hypothyroidism exists and its use prevents mental retardation. The prevalence of spontaneous hypothyroidism is between 1% and 2% and is more common in older women and 10 times more common in women than in men. A significant proportion of subjects have asymptomatic chronic autoimmune thyroiditis and 8% of women (10% of women over 55 years of age) and 3% of men have subclinical hypothyroidism. Approximately one third of patients with newly diagnosed overt hypothyroidism have received destructive therapy for hyperthyroidism and indefinite surveillance is required. There is not much that can be done to prevent the occurrence of spontaneous autoimmune hypothyroidism, but if identified early, something can be done to prevent progression to overt disease. Controversy exists as to whether healthy adults would benefit from screening for autoimmune thyroid disease because a significant proportion of subjects tested will have evidence of mild thyroid failure. Case finding in women at menopause or visiting a primary care physician with nonspecific symptoms appears justified.