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Welcome to our health education library. The information shared below is provided to you as an educational and informational source only and is not intended to replace a medical examination or consultation, or medical advice given to you by a physician or medical professional.

Thyroid Disease and Nodules

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the throat just below the larynx. This gland regulates metabolism by producing thyroid hormones that dictate how fast the body should use its stored energy.

When the thyroid gland is afflicted with a disease, its ability to produce sufficient thyroid hormones is impaired. In such a case, the thyroid gland may produce either too much or too few hormones so that body functions are affected.

What are the types of thyroid diseases?

There are several types of thyroid diseases, the most common of which are:

  • Grave’s disease. This is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the antibodies produced by a patient’s immune system attack the thyroid. This result in the thyroid gland producing excessive thyroid hormones, a condition called hyperthyroidism.
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Also an autoimmune disease, the antibodies produced by the autoimmune system attacks the thyroid but results in production of insufficient amounts of thyroid hormone, a condition called hypothyroidism.
  • Thyroid cancer. This is characterized by excessive growths in the thyroid gland. There are several main types of thyroid cancer: papillary and follicular, which both spread to the lungs and bones; anaplastic, which spreads to the lymph nodes and liver; and medullary, which spreads to surrounding tissues and blocks the windpipe.
  • Thyroid nodules. These are small lumps on the thyroid gland, which may appear a single/solitary nodules or several clumped together (multinodular gland). There are several types of thyroid nodules:
    • Solid nodules – Perhaps the most common type of nodules. They are generally harmless, with more than 90 percent of cases being benign.
    • Cysts – Fluid-filled nodules that are less likely to be malignant. Also called complex nodules, cysts should be monitored closely as larger ones may indicate the presence of thyroid cancer.
    • Functioning or hot nodules – These nodules are often the result of changes in or mutation of thyroid cell-related genes. In most cases, hot nodules are benign, but any unusual features or large nodules should be further examined through a biopsy.
    • Nonfunctioning or cold nodules – Like hot nodules, cold nodules are also mostly benign but should be monitored as they may indicate the presence of thyroid cancer. This is particularly true for patients who have swollen neck glands or lymph nodes, difficulty in breathing or swallowing or changes in voice.
  • Goiters. This ailment is characterized by a enlarged thyroid gland that manifests as a visible lump on the throat. Because an enlarged thyroid gland may compress neck muscles and surrounding tissue or organs such as the trachea and esophagus, a goiter patient may find it difficult to breathe or swallow.
  • Thyroiditis. This disease is characterized by an inflamed thyroid gland and may be a symptom of either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Thyroiditis may be caused by several factors, including an infection, an autoimmune disease or exposure to a harmful chemical. In some cases, the cause of the disease is unknown. Thyroiditis is easily ignored because it feels just like a sore throat or may be even painless.

How are thyroid diseases and nodules diagnosed?

Thyroid diseases and nodules may be diagnosed in several ways:

  • Laboratory tests, such as TSH, T4 or free T4, which are conducted to check for hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism; and T3 or free T3, to check for hyperthyroidism
  • Thyroid scans, which check for abnormalities of the thyroid gland and evaluate thyroid function, through the use of radioactive iodine or technetium
  • Ultrasound, which uses an imaging scan to detect a solid or fluid-filled nodule and to measure the size of the thyroid gland
  • Biopsy, a procedure that uses a fine needle, guided by an ultrasound device, to extract a small amount of tissue/fluid/specimen from a nodule or other areas that a doctor would deem necessary to examine.

How are thyroid diseases and nodules treated?

Treatment for any thyroid disease is oftentimes tailored to the specific needs and condition of the patient. The doctor may recommend a range of treatment options, including radioactive iodine therapy, surgery, hormone therapy or chemotherapy.

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