Radioactive Iodine Treatment

What Is Radioactive Iodine (RAI) Treatment? 

Radioactive iodine treatment, or RAI, is a form of nuclear medicine that is proving successful in treating two types of ailments: overactive thyroid, also called hyperthyroidism, and papillary and follicular thyroid cancers (including those that have begun spreading). Located in your throat, the thyroid helps to regulate your body’s metabolism through the release of hormones. A malfunctioning thyroid is marked by accelerated or irregular heat beats, tremors, fatigue, gastrointestinal upset, and weight loss. RAI is effective in killing cancerous or overactive thyroid cells because it is the only organ in the body that absorbs iodine.

Nuclear medicine is an increasingly important means of diagnosing and combating a range of ailments and conditions. The radiology professionals of Baptist Health are in the frontlines of this vanguard healthcare.

What Can RAI Therapy Help Treat?

RAI therapy has been shown effective in treating two leading types of thyroid ailments. 

RAI Therapy for Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism occurs when thyroid cells overproduce the hormones that regulate metabolism and other bodily functions, endangering the equilibria they’re supposed to be maintaining. To correct these imbalances, RAI treatment destroys some or all of the hormone-secreting cells in the thyroid. This process is known as radioiodine ablation. In those cases where curing hyperthyroidism requires the organ’s elimination, hypothyroidism, or thyroid underproduction, sometimes results. Underproduction can be treated more easily than overproduction, using thyroid hormone replacement therapy. 

RAI Therapy for Thyroid Cancer

There are several types of thyroid cancers, categorized as differentiated and undifferentiated. RAI therapy is useful in treating two forms of differentiated cancer: papillary and follicular. It is often deployed in conjunction with the surgical removal of part or all of the thyroid, to kill any cancer cells left behind. Radioactive iodine can also be used to treat patients whose cancer has metastasized to the lymph glands or has returned after a period of remission. 

How Do I Prepare for Radioactive Iodine Treatment?

Preparing for RAI treatment often requires changes in medications. If you are taking the thyroid hormones, liothyronine or thyroxine, also called T3 and T4, you may be asked to stop. Your physician might also put you on a thyroid-stimulating hormone called thyrotropin or TSH. In both cases, the reason is to prime the thyroid for the uptake of the radioactive iodine, which will increase the likelihood of killing off diseased or dysfunctional cells.

Prior to treatment, you should also avoid foods that are naturally high in iodine. These include:

  • Salt
  • Fish and seafood
  • Spinach, broccoli, and other leafy green vegetables
  • Milk chocolate
  • Fast foods and takeout
  • Vitamin and mineral substitutes.

In addition, you should restrict consumption of dairy products, including milk, butter, and cheeses. 

What Can I Expect During RAI Treatment?

Radioactive iodine therapy is delivered in either pill or liquid form. It does not require surgery. A single dosage is often sufficient in treating either hyperthyroidism or differentiated thyroid cancers. (Cancer dosages are typically stronger.) The therapy’s complete effects are sometimes not seen until six months have passed. If symptoms persist, contact your physician. 

What are the Risks of Radioactive Iodine Treatment?

Temporary side effects of RAI therapy include:

  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Tenderness and swelling in the neck
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Changes in how food tastes.

Men and women receiving large dosages of radioactive iodine have an increased chance of infertility. There is also evidence suggesting slightly elevated risks of stomach, blood, and salivary-gland cancers. 

What Precautions Should I Take After RAI Therapy?

RAI therapy kills targeted cells with radioactivity. This makes anyone receiving RAI temporarily radioactive. Steps should be taken to reduce your exposure to other persons for a period of days following treatment:

  • Patients with a thyroid cancer may require hospitalization for a short period in an isolation ward. 
  • On returning home, plan to sleep alone for three to five days.
  • Limit contact with children for up to a week.
  • Maintain a distance of six feet from others for three days. 
  • Do not share towels, dishes, utensils, or other personal items with anyone else during this period. 
  • Shower regularly and wipe the toilet seat after each sit.  

Learn More About RAI from Baptist Health

If you have concerns about your thyroid, we can help you diagnose and treat the problem. For more information on radioactive iodine therapy and related procedures at Baptist Health, contact your primary care physician.