Goiter refers to an enlargement of the thyroid gland, which is located at the base of the neck. The thyroid gland is responsible for producing hormones that regulate the body's metabolism (the system that manages the body's energy).
While an enlarged thyroid gland is often the only sign of a goiter, the following symptoms may also occur if the goiter is pressing on nearby throat tissue:
- Hoarseness or wheezing
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
A goiter may also be associated with hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid activity) or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid activity). If your doctor suspects that a hormone imbalance may be related to your goiter, a blood test may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis.
Causes and triggers
A goiter can have various causes, including:
- Not having enough iodine in your diet
- The use of certain medications (check with your health professional)
- A family history of thyroid disease
- Certain hormonal changes (e.g., puberty, pregnancy or menopause)
- Other thyroid diseases (e.g., thyroiditis, nodules, cancer)
Women are at greater risk for developing thyroid problems, including goiter.
Treatment depends on the size and cause of the goiter, as well as the amount of thyroid hormone produced. In mild cases that do not involve a hormone imbalance, treatment is not always necessary; regular follow-ups are usually sufficient.
A goiter caused by an iodine deficiency can be treated with supplements. Nowadays, this is very rare since iodine is added to table salt to prevent this type of deficiency.
If the goiter is accompanied by thyroid levels that are too low or too high, medication aimed at normalizing hormone levels may be prescribed. Radioactive iodine, a nuclear medicine treatment, can also be used to treat patients with high thyroid levels. Rarely, surgery may be required to remove part of the thyroid gland.
When should I see a medical professional?
See your health care provider if your goiter is making it difficult for you to breathe or swallow.