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What Is a Goiter? - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

What do former president George H. Bush, Rod Stewart, Muhammed Ali, Carl Lewis, and Joe Piscopo have in common? They were all diagnosed with goiter. In this lesson, we'll go over what goiters are, as well as their causes, symptoms and available treatments.

Definition

A goiter is simply an abnormal swelling of the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is located at the base of the front of your neck. It is shaped like a butterfly, and its function is to make hormones that help the body use energy, stay warm, and keep the organs of the body working properly. A goiter indicates that something is happening to cause the thyroid to behave abnormally.

Small Goiter
Class II Goiter

Large Goiter
Large Goiter

Causes

Some of the most common causes of goiter include:

Iodine deficiency -- iodine is an essential element for the production of thyroid hormones

Graves' disease -- too much thyroid hormone is produced

Hashimoto's disease -- too little thyroid hormone is produced

Single and multinodular goiter -- solid or fluid-filled lump(s) develop in the thyroid gland

Thyroid cancer

Pregnancy -- extra hormones may cause enlargement of the thyroid gland

Inflammation of the thyroid gland -- may cause enlargement

History

In the early 1800s, Bernard Courtois was trying to find ways to substitute ingredients to make gunpowder when he discovered the substance that would be identified as iodine. The word iodine comes from the Greek word for violet. The connection between iodine and goiter was made in 1820.

In the past, goiter was common in inland areas with iodine-deficient soil. In order to prevent goiter, some countries, including the U.S., starting adding iodine to salt in the 1920s.

Symptoms

Some of the symptoms goiters cause include:

• Swelling at the base of the neck

• A tightness in the throat

• Coughing

• Hoarseness

Large goiters may interfere with breathing and/or swallowing.

Treatment

Small goiters that do not affect appearance, as long as the thyroid is functioning properly, need no treatment. If the cause is low levels of thyroid hormone, then replacement hormone will be given. Medication can also treat inflammation, and high levels of thyroid hormone.

Surgery to remove all or part of the goiter may be necessary in the case of a goiter that interferes with breathing, or in the case of cancer. Replacement hormone may be necessary, depending on how much of the thyroid is removed. The replacement hormone may be made from pigs' thyroid glands or a synthetic form.

Radioactive iodine is sometimes used to treat goiter caused by an overactive thyroid. It often results in diminished production of thyroid hormone, so replacement hormone is necessary.

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