What Is a Goiter?

goiter

Clinically reviewed by Dr. Sergio Chang-Figueroa.

Your thyroid gland is at the front of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. The hormones it produces help regulate heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, metabolism, growth in children, and how other hormones interact. 

A goiter is an enlargement of that gland or a lump formed on the thyroid by irregular cell growth. This condition can cause an increase or decrease in thyroid function or may occur with no change in function.

Goiters are common and typically not dangerous unless caused by thyroid cancer. They can also be problematic if they get big enough to interfere with breathing or swallowing. 

Goiter Symptoms

In most instances, the only initial symptom of a goiter is swelling at the base of the neck. If you have a goiter and it’s small, it might only be discovered when you have a routine medical exam or medical imaging done for some other reason. 

If your goiter causes your thyroid to be underactive (hypothyroidism), you may experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleepiness
  • Dry skin
  • Heightened cold sensitivity
  • Muscle weakness
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems

If, on the other hand, your goiter causes overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), the symptoms include:

  • Weight loss even with increased appetite
  • Irritability and nervousness
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • High blood pressure
  • Tremors
  • Increased heat sensitivity
  • Excess sweating
  • Muscle weakness
  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Menstrual cycle changes
  • Trouble sleeping

In children, an overactive thyroid can cause behavioral changes and rapid height increases. 

Some goiters get large enough that they affect the airway and voice box. In that scenario, you may also experience:

  • Trouble breathing, particularly with physical exertion
  • Hoarseness
  • Cough
  • New or worsened snoring
  • Difficulty swallowing

What Causes Goiters?

Several conditions and medical issues can contribute to the development of a goiter, including:

  • Pregnancy
  • Iodine deficiency
  • Hashimoto’s disease and Grave’s disease (autoimmune disorders)
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Thyroiditis (inflammation caused by infections, medications, or an autoimmune disorder)
  • Thyroid nodules (irregular cell growth)

Other factors that increase the risk of developing a goiter are:

  • Being 40 or older
  • Having a family medical history of goiter or thyroid issues
  • Taking certain heart and psychiatric medications 
  • Radiation treatments in the neck or chest area
  • Being female
  • Lack of dietary iodine (which is rare in the U.S.)

Goiter Diagnosis and Treatment

Doctors diagnose goiters in physical exams or imaging procedures. After determining that you have a goiter, they may do additional testing to measure it, look for other inflamed nodules, determine if your thyroid activity has been affected, and assess the cause. 

These evaluations include thyroid function tests, ultrasound imaging, antibody tests, radioactive iodine uptake tests, and biopsies. 

There are multiple treatments for goiters. They include:

  • Medications for reducing hormone production, increasing hormone production, blocking hormone activities, and managing pain
  • Surgery to remove part of all of a goiter if it causes breathing or swallowing problems, is causing hyperthyroidism, or is cancerous
  • Radioactive iodine treatment where material is taken orally and destroys thyroid cells

Following many goiter treatments, a patient will have to take a thyroid hormone replacement for life. 

If low iodine has caused a goiter to develop, you may be encouraged to eat more iodine-containing foods, such as dairy products, saltwater fish and shellfish, soy products, and seaweed.  

Learn About Endocrinology Services at Baptist Health

Endocrinologists are doctors that specialize in glands and the hormones they produce. If you have a goiter, your primary care doctor may refer you to one of these specialists. 

Learn about our endocrinology services


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