Life after radioactive iodine treatment for thyroid cancer
This page tells you about life after radioactive iodine treatment for thyroid cancer. You can find the following information
Immediately after the treatment
After radioactive iodine treatment you will have a low level of radiation in your body. The doctors will tell you when the radioactivity has dropped to a safe level and you can go home. They will also advise you about any precautions you need to take, and for how long.
You may need to avoid close contact with babies, young children, pets or pregnant women for a couple of weeks. You might also need to stay away from crowded places where you may be close to the same person for a long time (such as the cinema).
Doctors usually advise you to use condoms during sex for 7 days after treatment to protect your partner. Women need to avoid becoming pregnant for at least 6 months after treatment. Men need to avoid fathering a child for at least 4 months.
Short term problems
Most people don’t notice side effects when they have radioactive iodine treatment. But you may have a swollen or tender neck and feel flushed. You may also feel sick and have a dry mouth and changes to your taste. Sometimes the salivary glands become inflamed, which causes swelling and pain.
Long term problems
Inflammation of the salivary glands usually gets better with time but can be a long term problem. The treatment can also cause dry eyes. It is very common for people to feel very tired for up to a year after treatment. But energy levels usually return to normal. Your doctor will talk to you about the risk of developing any rarer side effects, such as lung problems or second cancers.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the living with thyroid cancer section.
For a few days after radioactive iodine treatment, you will be slightly radioactive. You will need to stay in a single room in the hospital. Every day the doctors will come and take measurements from you to work out how much radiation is left in your body. They will tell you when the radioactivity has dropped to a safe level and you can go home.
When you go home the doctor or nurse will tell you whether you need to take any precautions, and for how long. They might tell you not to have close contact with babies, young children, pets or pregnant women for a couple of weeks. You might also need to stay away from crowded places where you may be close to the same person for a long time (such as the cinema).
The advice about precautions varies for different people and for different hospitals. So make sure you talk to your doctor or specialist nurse. They will explain how long you need to limit yourself.
Doctors usually advise you to use condoms during sex for 7 days after radioactive iodine treatment. And it is also recommended that
- Women use reliable contraception for at least 6 months, and
- Men use reliable contraception for at least 4 months
This is because the eggs and sperm produced after treatment may be damaged by the radiation. This could cause abnormalities in a child conceived soon after the treatment. Research suggests that if you wait for the advised period of time, you don’t have an increased risk of abnormalities with future pregnancies or children.
Most people don’t notice side effects when they have radioactive iodine treatment. The side effects vary depending on your age, whether you have other medical conditions, and the dose of radioactive iodine.
Some of the short term problems you may have are described below.
A swollen or tender neck and feeling flushed
Some people may have a feeling of tightness or swelling in their neck for a few days after treatment. This is more common if you still had a large part of your thyroid gland when you have radioactive iodine treatment. Some people also feel flushed. Rarely, people can feel pain in their neck. Tell your doctor or nurse if any of these symptoms happen. They can give you a painkiller or a medicine to reduce inflammation, which can help.
Feeling sick (nausea)
You may feel sick for the first few days after treatment. Your doctor or nurse can give you anti sickness medicine to help with this.
A dry mouth and changes to your taste
If you have a dry mouth, your nurse can give you artificial saliva. You may also have short term changes to your taste and smell. This may not start until you get home. It usually gets better within 4 to 8 weeks. It can help to drink plenty of fluids after your treatment.
Inflammation of the salivary glands (where your spit is made)
Your salivary glands can become inflamed after treatment. This can cause symptoms such as swelling and pain, and making less spit. This usually gets better with time, but in a few people it may be permanent. To reduce the risk of getting this side effect, it can help to drink plenty of fluids during your hospital stay. And some doctors recommend that you chew gum or suck sweets to keep the salivary glands working.
Possible long term problems you may have are described below
Inflammation of the salivary glands (where spit is made)
For a few people, inflammation of the salivary gland can be a long term problem. This may cause a dry mouth and permanent changes in taste and smell.
Dry or watery eyes
Radioactive iodine treatment can affect the lacrimal glands. These are glands in your eyes which make tears. The treatment can affect the production of tears. Some people may develop dry eyes and rarely, some people get watery eyes.
Lower ability to have children (fertility)
In women, radioactive iodine treatment should not affect the ability to have children, even if you need to have repeated treatments. Some women may have irregular periods after treatment.
Men who need to have repeated treatment with radioactive iodine may have lower sperm counts and lower testosterone levels. This usually gets better with time. Rarely, it means that you may be unable to father a child (be infertile). Your doctor may offer you sperm banking before you start treatment.
After this treatment, doctors usually recommend that women wait for at least 6 months and men for at least 4 months before trying to conceive a baby. The research suggests that if you wait for the advised period of time, you don't have an increased risk of abnormalities with future pregnancies or children.
It is common for people to feel very tired for up to a year after treatment. But energy levels will usually return to normal levels. Most people get back to leading a normal life. We have information about how you can manage tiredness.
Lower levels of blood cells
Bone marrow is the spongy substance in the centre of the bones that makes red and white blood cells and platelets. The treatment may stop the bone marrow making so many blood cells. If this happens you may have lower resistance to infection, and tiredness and breathlessness. Or you may notice that you bruise or bleed more easily.
You may need to have blood tests to monitor your blood cell levels. It is rare for this to be a long term problem after radioactive iodine treatment.
Some people need to have repeated radioactive iodine treatment for thyroid cancer that has spread to the lungs. Very rarely, they may develop problems with their lungs. The treatment makes the lung tissue less stretchy. This is called radiation fibrosis, and can make it harder to breathe. Your doctors will keep an eye on your lung function.
After this treatment, you may have a slightly increased risk of developing a second cancer in the future. Doctors are not sure exactly how much your risk is increased. But most studies suggest it is a very low increase in risk. Your doctor or nurse specialist will discuss this with you if you are worried. They can help you weigh up this risk with the benefit of treating the thyroid cancer.
You will need to take thyroxine tablets to replace the hormones that your thyroid gland normally makes. Your doctors will want to keep your thyroid hormones at a slightly higher level than you would normally need. This is to stop your body producing another hormone called thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH can help some types of thyroid cancer cells to grow.
We have more information about thyroid hormones.
It is quite common for people to need more than one radioactive iodine treatment. This is to make sure the treatment destroys all the remaining thyroid tissue and cancer cells.
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