Having radioactive iodine treatment for thyroid cancer

Radioactive iodine treatment takes place in the hospital. You usually stay there for a few days until your radiation levels have fallen to a safe level. You will be looked after in a single room, where you stay alone. 

What happens during radioactive iodine treatment?

You have iodine treatment as a drink or capsule which you swallow. The capsule is about the size of a paracetamol capsule. You won’t be able to eat or drink for a couple of hours afterwards so that your body can absorb the iodine. After that, you should drink plenty of fluids to flush the radioactive iodine out of your system. You can eat as normal.

The treatment makes you radioactive. So your sweat, urine and saliva will be radioactive for a few days. There are certain precautions that you and the staff need to follow. Try not to be alarmed by these. Your treatment contains a low dose of radiation that is necessary to treat your cancer.

A radiation monitor (Geiger counter) may be used to check your levels of radioactivity or test anything that is taken out of your room.

Your meals may be served on disposable plates with disposable cutlery. You put these in a special bin when you have finished with them.

The hospital staff ask you to flush the toilet more than once after you have used it and to shower each day.

Protecting others from the radiation

Being in a room on your own (isolation) protects other people from radiation. Pregnant women and children are not allowed into your room. Other visitors may be able to stay for a short time when it is safe for them to do so.

The amount of time staff are allowed into your room is limited. They stay at a safe distance from you and can only stay in your room with you for as long as is necessary. This is because they will care for many people who have this treatment. So the amount of radiation they are exposed to has to be carefully controlled. It is important that you know that you are not at any risk from the radiation. 

Coping with isolation

Being looked after in a single room can feel lonely. Some people find it frightening. It can help to talk to the nurses about your worries. They can reassure you.

You may be able to take a few personal possessions into your room. The hospital staff will tell you if this is possible and what you can have with you. They may suggest not bringing too many items in and nothing of value. When you are ready to go home, you may need to leave some of your things behind until they don’t have any radiation on them.

Some hospital rooms will have a television and a phone. You could check before you go in to find out if this is the case.

Last reviewed: 
20 May 2021
Next review due: 
20 May 2024
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    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures, Professional Edition (10th Edition)
    S.Lister and others (Editors)
    Wiley Blackwell, 2020

  • Radioactive iodine ablation and therapy

    British Thyroid Association Patient Information Leaflet 4. 2014

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