Radioactive material has various industrial uses, from food sterilization to geological exploration. In the medical field, radioactive iodine I-131 (RAI) treats an overactive thyroid and some types of thyroid cancer. RAI is a safe treatment that destroys thyroid cells without harming the rest of the body.
How radiation can diagnose and treat health issues
Nuclear medicine uses tiny amounts of radioactive material to test organ function and treat abnormal soft tissue. Traditional imaging procedures cannot clearly visualize soft tissues such as blood vessels, muscles, and intestines. Radioactive materials are used as contrast agents to better assess organ and tissue health.
Hyperthyroidism creates a hormone imbalance
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland located at the base of the neck that produces hormones to regulate metabolism and other biological functions. An overactive thyroid produces too much of the hormone thyroxine, which can cause a fast or irregular heartbeat, nervousness, fatigue, weakness, mood swings, and weight loss.
Destroying the excess thyroid cells
Most of the body’s iodine content is stored in the thyroid gland, which uses iodine to produce hormones. RAI is taken as an oral capsule and restores a hormone balance by damaging thyroid cells with radiation. Patients may only need one dose, which can take effect over a few weeks or months, to fully treat hyperthyroidism.
Treating thyroid cancers with high RAI doses
Papillary and follicular thyroid cancers may be treatable with RAI in higher doses than RAI hyperthyroidism treatment. RAI treatment for thyroid cancer is administered after the removal of the thyroid gland. An RAI tracer dose can be used to determine the location and severity of the spread of thyroid cancer cells.
Understanding the risks and side effects
RAI is a generally safe and effective treatment for some thyroid cancers and hyperthyroidism. Still, RAI has some side effects, including nausea, dry eyes, swollen salivary glands, loss or changes in taste, and neck tenderness and swelling. RAI can cause a permanent underactive thyroid, which can be effectively treated with hormone replacement therapy.
RAI effects on reproductive health
RAI therapy is not recommended for women who are pregnant or nursing. Patients should avoid getting pregnant 6-12 months after receiving RAI therapy for thyroid cancer. RAI therapy may cause irregular menstrual cycles.
Protecting others from radiation exposure
In some cases, RAI therapy patients may need to remain in the hospital for a few days in isolation to prevent radiation exposure to others. Patients that do not require hospitalization will still need to practice proper safety measures to prevent radiation exposure.
Keep your distance
After RAI therapy, patients must avoid being too close for long periods with others, especially pregnant women and children. Patients should remain at least 6 feet away from others, sleep alone, shower every day, and avoid going out in public. Avoid sharing kitchen utensils, towels, bedding, and other personal items.
RAI is effective
Depending on the severity of the disease and a doctor’s recommendation, RAI therapy may be an efficacious treatment for thyroid disease. Understanding the side effects and practicing the proper precautions can improve the outcome of the therapy and keep others safe.