Causes and Signs of an Enlarged Thyroid

February 8, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Alexander Shifrin, M.D. contributes to topics such as Endocrine Surgery.

There’s a good reason medical checkups typically include a quick but gentle pat-down of your neck area by health care providers. Among other conditions, they’re looking for a goiter, an enlarged thyroid gland that may spell health problems but can also be harmless.

Goiters affect about 16 percent of people worldwide, ranging from just under 5 percent in the United States to 28.3 percent in Africa, according to the National Institutes of Health. But the most common cause of goiters globally—a lack of the nutrient iodine—isn’t a significant issue in the U.S., where iodized salt is routinely used.

“In our country, many goiters are idiopathic, meaning we don’t know the reason why they occur,” says Alexander Shifrin, M.D., an endocrine surgeon at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

Still, various risk factors can make it more likely that you’ll develop a goiter. These include:

  • Gender: Women experience more goiters than men, as well as more thyroid problems overall.
  • Age: Goiters happen more often in those over age 40.
  • Family history: If you or a family member have dealt with an autoimmune disease, this ups your risk for a goiter.
  • Pregnancy and menopause: Thyroid problems happen more often during these hormone-fluctuating times in women’s lives.
  • Radiation exposure: Those who’ve undergone radiation treatments to the head, neck or chest, or have been exposed to radiation from a nuclear facility or accident, are more prone.

Symptoms of Enlarged Thyroids

Located at the base of the neck, the thyroid produces hormones that regulate a variety of crucial bodily functions, ranging from helping us keep warm and use energy to fueling proper function of organs and muscles. The development of a goiter doesn’t mean the gland isn’t working. But this enlargement, which can happen slowly or quickly, may also signal the thyroid is making too much or too little hormone.

What signs of a goiter should you watch for? Dr. Shifrin says size matters. “Watch for an enlargement of the thyroid,” he says, including swelling at the base of your neck. “Every enlarged gland should be checked for cancer.”

According to the American Thyroid Association, you should also watch for these signs:

  • Trouble swallowing, breathing or speaking normally
  • Coughing
  • Tightness in the throat

Most goiters aren’t cancerous, Dr. Shifrin says, but you should still have it checked by your primary physician or an endocrine specialist. Blood tests alone can’t usually determine if thyroid cancer is present. “Ninety percent of thyroid cancers are detected by palpating the gland and a thyroid ultrasound,” Dr. Shifrin says.

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.