What is a Goiter?

Inside of the neck above the collarbones is an important gland known as the thyroid gland. It produces hormones that help the body function normally. When this gland gets enlarged, a goiter is the common result. Goiters used to be very common in the ancient world where it was hard to get iodine in the diet. Now that iodized salt is used so extensively, goiters caused by iodine deficiency are rare.

Other causes of goiters include Grave’s disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, food allergies, a complication from long-term tobacco smoking and a bad side effect to new medications like lithium or amiodarone. Although goiters are not medical emergencies, they should not be ignored.

What are the Symptoms of a Goiter?

The front of the neck swells often in a round shape from barely noticeable to horrific proportions. The swelling may be painful, but not always. When goiters are large enough they interfere with breathing and swallowing. Large goiters put pressure on the vocal chords so the sound of a person’s voice changes. Patients with goiters often cannot sleep on their backs because the goiter cuts off their air supply. The most common goiter patient is a woman over 40 years old that has a blood relative that suffered from goiters.

Goiter Causes

A person can develop goiter as a result of various underlying medical conditions. It can be linked to both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of goiter. If the body lacks iodine, the thyroid gland will attempt to produce more thyroid hormone to counter hypothyroidism. In the process, the thyroid gland gets stimulated thus enlarges to form an endemic goiter.

Some goiter cases can also be linked to pregnancy. This happens during the first trimester when the human chorionic gonadotrophin (HGC) triggers an enlargement of the thyroid gland. The thyroid mistakes HGC for the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) resulting in its enlargement.

Thyroiditis, inflammation of the thyroid, can also cause goiter. Thyroiditis is usually linked to hypothyroidism. Thyroiditis has many causes and some of its symptoms include neck pain and mild fever.

Other known causes of goiter include Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, multinodular goiter, thyroid cancer and solitary thyroid nodules.

How is a Goiter Treated?

Treatment for goiters depends upon the cause. Unless the cause of why the goiter grew is addressed, the goiter may not go away. Only rarely does a goiter disappear just as it mysteriously appeared. Goiters should be checked out by a doctor since they can be a sign of potentially deadly medical conditions like Grave’s disease.

Goiters caused by lack of iodine in the diet shrink when the patient drinks potassium iodine or Lugol’s iodine and uses iodized salt regularly afterwards.

Goiters caused by thyroid problems need thyroid supplements to help the thyroid make the correct amount of hormones. Worse cases may need radioactive iodine, which can be taken orally.

In worse case scenarios, the thyroid may have to be surgically removed. The patient then needs to take hormone pills to replace the hormones that the thyroid used to make.

Goiter Prevention

In most cases, preventing goiter that is caused by iodine deficiency is as simple as making a slight adjustment to diet. Iodine is an essential mineral in the production of thyroid hormones. If you are not getting enough iodine, be sure to include foods rich in iodine in your diet. These include eggs, seafood, milk and lots of fruits.

Use iodinated salt to ensure sufficient daily supply of iodine. This is particularly important if you are living in an area where the soil, and farm produce by extension, has an iodine deficiency.

Avoid overexposure to radiation if you are working in a radiation-prone workplace like an X-ray facility or if you are on radiation treatment. In addition, avoid certain immunosuppressant and anti-retroviral medications.

During pregnancy, be sure to take iodine supplements to ensure that your thyroid glands are working properly. Finally, avoid lifestyle choices like chronic alcoholism and hard drug abuse that can compromise the functionality of your thyroid glands.

Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
April 10, 2019