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Goiter is a condition represented by a swelling of the thyroid gland. Many people who see visible swelling at the base of the throat might think instantly that it is a cancerous growth, but goiter is not malignant. It can indicate that there is a problem somewhere with the endocrine system that needs to be evaluated. Goiter can progress with relatively few signs or symptoms, but the most common include swelling, tightness in the throat, difficulty swallowing or breathing, and coughing or hoarseness.
The thyroid gland is located on the front of the throat at the base of the neck. It is shaped like a butterfly, and produces hormones which help control energy and protein levels, among other things. When there is a problem with the thyroid, goiter symptoms can develop. If goiter symptoms interfere with a person's ability to breathe or swallow, or when there is visible swelling, a doctor should be consulted.
Throughout the world, iodine deficiency is the most common cause of goiter. In the US and other countries, the use of iodized salt since the 1920s has virtually eradicated the problem, but nearly two billion people around the globe have an iodine deficiency. Iodine deficiency can cause mental retardation, among other things. If a person in a country that uses iodized salt develops goiter symptoms, this usually means there is another condition to blame.
A patient that presents with goiter symptoms is usually tested for hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism is an underproduction of thyroid hormones, while hyperthyroidism is an overproduction of thyroid hormones. Hyperthyroidism is typically caused by Graves’ Disease and hypothyroidism is typically caused by Hashimoto’s Disease. Both can have drastic effects on the normal functions of the rest of the body, since the endocrine system is interdependent on so many other functions.
Goiter can be categorized as diffuse, which means that conditions appear throughout the thyroid. This is also known as multi-nodular goiter. Goiter can also be toxic, in cases of hyperthyroidism, or non-toxic, in cases of hypothyroidism.
The diagnosis of goiter is usually determined when goiter symptoms appear and thyroid hormone levels are tested and found to be abnormal. In cases of hypothyroidism, hormone replacement medicines are given which simulate the normal production of thyroid hormones. In cases of hyperthyroidism that is deemed to be temporary, beta-blockers are used as treatment. Beta-blockers do not affect the thyroid; they only lessen the side effects of the overproduction of thyroid hormones. In patients with long-term hyperthyroidism, other drugs can be effective in stifling the production of the thyroid hormones.
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