The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ nestled in the neck. It has a simple anatomy: left and right lobes, with a middle region known as its isthmus. While its anatomy seems simple, its function is a bit more complex, producing hormones known as T3 and T4, which are responsible for our basal metabolic rate–aka how much energy we’re using at rest.
T3 and T4 also have complicated relationships with our reproductive hormones, and any imbalances we may have with these hormones could affect our sex drive, fertility, and other reproductive behaviors. If the thyroid makes these hormones in excess, it could lead to a spike in heart rate and blood pressure. If the thyroid makes too little of these hormones, on the other hand, it can lead to a host of other symptoms, such as joint pain. Thyroid disorders could also lead to other symptoms, such as hair loss.
Another condition that can develop in the thyroid is called a goiter; it’s characterized by the abnormal swelling of the gland. And while the condition is generally painless, a particularly large goiter can lead to a cough and cause difficulty breathing or swallowing.
While goiters can be present at birth or develop at any time in someone’s life, there are a handful of risk factors that may increase your chances of developing one:
- Age: goiters are more commonly seen in individuals above 40.
- Exposure to radiation: your risk of developing a goiter increases if you’ve received radiation treatments in your neck or chest, or if you’ve been exposed to radiation in some other way.
- Certain medications: some medications, such as the heart drug amiodarone and the psychiatric drug lithium, could increase your risk of a goiter.
- Medical history: having a personal or family history of autoimmune disease(s) increases your risk of developing a goiter.
- Gender: women are more prone to thyroid disorders and, by extension, the development of goiters.
- A lack of iodine in the diet: individuals who live in areas with depleted iodine supplies and without access to iodine supplements are at an increased risk of developing goiters.
- Pregnancy and menopause: though the reasons behind this aren’t fully known, women are more likely to develop thyroid issues during pregnancy and menopause.
The most common worldwide cause of thyroid goiters is a diet lacking in iodine. In the United States, however, where we often use iodized salt, goiters are more frequently caused by the over- or underproduction of T3 and T4, or nodules that form within the thyroid. If you’re diagnosed with a thyroid goiter, your treatment plan will vary depending on its size as well as its root cause. Small, unnoticeable goiters which don’t cause issues generally don’t require treatment.
The Ezra full-body scan screens your thyroid for cancer and other actionable conditions. If you’d like to learn more about our screening options, you may do so here.