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What is Thyroid Swelling?

By Melissa Barrett
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Thyroid swelling is a medical condition that occurs when the thyroid, a small gland in the neck, becomes inflamed and increases in size. This swelling is often referred to as a goiter or thyroiditis. If the swelling is pronounced, it can be felt or seen as a lump on the neck.

There are many causes of thyroid swelling. Diet, pregnancy, and certain medications can all lead to relatively harmless goiters. Generally, these conditions are temporary and can often be treated rapidly.

The thyroid requires iodine to make certain hormones. If there is not enough iodine in a diet, the thyroid can become overworked and swell as a result. In this case, increasing the iodine intake in a diet is generally the only treatment required. If the iodine deficiency is serious, small doses of potassium iodine may be prescribed.

Women who are pregnant will, on rare occasions, notice mild thyroid swelling. During pregnancy the body produces a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). The hormone can cause irritation in the thyroid gland, producing a small to moderate sized painless goiter. Often there is no treatment necessary and the thyroid gland typically returns to its normal size shortly after childbirth.

Medications such as lithium and aminoglutethimide can cause thyroid swelling. Seldom does this type of goiter require intervention. If the swelling becomes bothersome, physicians will occasionally adjust medicine dosages or change medications completely.

There are occasions when a goiter can point to a more serious underlying condition. Swelling caused by a lump on the thyroid gland is often a benign tumor or cyst but, in rare cases, it can be a cancerous tumor. Generally, physicians will order a biopsy to determine the cause of the nodule and then treat it accordingly.

Grave’s disease occurs when the thyroid overproduces hormones, and thyroid swelling can sometimes indicate this condition. If a patient’s swelling is accompanied by other symptoms, such as weight loss and insomnia, doctors will often test for increased hormones in the blood. If hormones levels are high, a radioactive iodine uptake test is then necessary.

While the underlying causes may be serious, the actual swelling that results is often painless. Unless the goiter causes difficulty in breathing or swallowing, treatment for the thyroid swelling itself is generally unnecessary. Increased coughing, hoarseness, or extreme aesthetic issues may require intervention.

Treatments for thyroid swelling include medication, surgery, and radioactive iodine treatment. Medications to reduce swelling are the most commonly prescribed. Aspirin and corticosteroid drugs treat just the swelling without addressing the cause. Levothyroxine decreases the production of certain thyroid hormones and can shrink the growth.

Both surgery and radioactive iodine treatment reduce the size of the thyroid swelling by removing part or all of the thyroid gland. In radioactive iodine treatment, a capsule containing iodine mixed with radioactive chemicals is ingested. The iodine is then absorbed by the thyroid, causing part of the gland to be destroyed. The surgical option is more invasive but can be directed at a specific area of the gland. These options frequently require the patient to take hormone replacement medications indefinitely.

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