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Thyroid lumps: Common but rarely cancerous

Most thyroid nodules don't need treatment, but they can be removed or shrunk if needed.

Finding a literal lump in your throat can be scary, but in most cases, lumps on the thyroid—a small gland at the base of the throat—aren't a serious health threat.

These lumps are called thyroid nodules, and nearly 50% of adults will develop one by age 60, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

Tests to find out more

If there's a lump on your thyroid, your doctor may recommend one or more tests to get more information. Common tests used to gather information on thyroid nodules include:

Blood tests to find out if your thyroid gland is producing normal amounts of thyroid hormone.

Fine needle biopsy to look for cancerous tissue. The doctor removes a sample of thyroid tissue using a very small needle and sends the tissue to a laboratory, where it's examined under a microscope.

Ultrasound imaging to get information about the size and consistency of the lump. High-frequency sound waves are used to create an image that shows how large the nodule is and if it's solid or filled with fluid. If the nodule has characteristics common for cancer, your doctor may recommend a biopsy to get more information.

Thyroid scan to produce a specialized image of the thyroid gland. This test uses radioactive iodine, a substance that's absorbed by normal thyroid tissue but not by cancerous tissue. The iodine is injected into a vein or swallowed. A special camera then creates an image of the thyroid that shows how much of the iodine is absorbed by the thyroid nodule. If the nodule isn't absorbing any iodine, a biopsy probably will be recommended.

Less than 10% of thyroid nodules are cancerous, according to the AAFP.

When treatment is needed

In the unlikely event that the nodule is due to cancer, treatment can usually cure it, according to the American Thyroid Association. Surgery is the most common treatment for thyroid cancer. In some cases, radioactive iodine therapy is also used.

If the nodule is causing problems for another reason, your doctor may recommend hormone pills that can shrink it or surgery to remove the gland. But if the lump isn't causing any problems, your doctor will probably recommend leaving it alone and watching for growth or changes.

Reviewed 2/28/2022

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