The Effects of Radiation to the Thyroid

Radiation treatment for the thyroid gland utilizes radioactive iodine to burn away all or part of the gland. It is commonly used as a treatment for hyperthyroidism. While the term radiation has negative implications, unlike other radiation based treatments like chemotherapy, radioactive iodine is a safe procedure that does not damage any other areas of the body. It typically only requires one dose and is processed out of the body within a few months.

  1. Significance

    • Radiation treatment is recommended for individuals who have an overactive thyroid. The overproduction of thyroid hormone can lead to a myriad of health issues including hair loss, risk for heart attack, tachycardia and a heightened potential for stroke. When controlling the production of the thyroid hormones T3 and T4 with suppressant pills, removing all or part of the gland becomes the only option for preventing long-term damage. Radiation treatment may also be used to remove the gland in the event that it becomes cancerous.

    Why It Is Effective

    • Radioactive iodine is effective on the thyroid gland because the thyroid utilizes iodine on a daily basis to help produce hormones. The treatment only works on the thyroid, as it is the only part of the body to absorb iodine. Iodine is ingested through a variety of foods including eggs, kelp, strawberries, milk and iodized salt. The radioactive compound of iodine is indistinguishable on a chemical level from nonradioactive iodine, and therefore will be absorbed by the thyroid without issue.

    How it Works

    • Radiation treatment for the thyroid is given in either a pill form or as a dram of liquid solution. After the iodine enters the blood stream, it is taken in by the thyroid, where it begins to radiate and mutate the thyroid cells. Unused radioactive iodine is passed harmlessly through the system and is excreted through urine within several days after treatment. The iodine absorbed into the gland will actively radiate for up to three months, at which point another dosage my need to be given or the gland will be reduced to the appropriate size.

    Effect on Size

    • How much the size of the gland is reduced through the treatment depends on how overactive it was to start with. For example, if the thyroid was mildly overactive, it would only absorb a relatively small amount of the iodine. This is because it produces a little more hormone than average and therefore only needs to be reduced only slightly in size. However, a wildly overactive gland will absorb much more iodine since it's producing significantly more hormone. This will lead to more radiation of the gland and a significantly decreased size.

    Long-Term Effects

    • The long-term effect radiation has on the thyroid will vary depending on how much of the gland is finally removed. While the goal is in most cases to bring the patient down to a level or normal thyroid function, in cases where the gland is truly out of control, the medical professional may opt to simply remove the entire gland to prevent a recurrence of the condition. Suffering from hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, is a common long-term effect of the treatment. However, since the symptoms of an underactive thyroid are more easily controlled and less dangerous, it is considered better than remaining overactive.

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