A goitre (sometimes spelt "goiter") is an abnormal swelling of the thyroid gland that causes a lump to form in the neck.

There can be many possible causes, including an under- or overactive thyroid gland, iodine deficiency and, rarely, thyroid cancer (see below).

The thyroid gland

The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, just in front of the windpipe (trachea). It produces thyroid hormones, which help regulate the body's metabolism (the chemical processes that occur in the body).

The thyroid gland isn't usually noticeable, but if it swells, it produces a lump on the neck known as a goitre.

The size of a goitre can vary from person to person. In most cases, the swelling is small and doesn't cause any symptoms. However, in more severe cases, the swelling can increase significantly and affect breathing and swallowing.

Read more about the symptoms of a goitre.

What causes a goitre?

Goitres can have several possible causes, including:

Read more about the causes of a goitre.

Diagnosing a goitre

If you think you have a goitre, see your GP – they can carry out some tests to determine whether you have one.

Your GP will examine your neck to see whether your thyroid gland is swollen. They may also refer you for a thyroid function test, to see how well your thyroid gland is working.

A thyroid function test measures the level of certain hormones (chemicals produced by the body) in your blood. It can show whether you have an underactive or overactive thyroid, both of which are associated with goitre.

Read more about how a goitre is diagnosed.

Treating a goitre

The treatment for goitres depends on the underlying cause. If the goitre is small and isn't causing any problems, a wait-and-see approach is usually recommended.

Other possible treatments include radioiodine treatment and thyroid surgery.

Although most goitres are usually benign (non-cancerous), it's estimated that in 1 in 20 cases they may be a sign of thyroid cancer.

Read more about treating a goitre.

Risk factors

Goitres can affect anyone, but they're more common in women and people over 40.

Risk factors for goitres include:

  • sex  women are more likely to have thyroid problems and develop a goitre
  • age  the risk of developing a goitre increases with age
  • a lack of iodine in the diet
  • pregnancy and menopause  for reasons that are unclear, the risk of having thyroid problems increases during pregnancy and the menopause
  • medication  some types of medication, such as lithium and immunosuppressants, increase your risk
  • exposure to radiation  having radiation treatment to your neck or chest area, or being exposed to radiation, also increases your risk

Page last reviewed: 07/05/2014

Next review due: 07/05/2016