Thyroid nodules

Key points abut thyroid nodules

  • Thyroid nodules are lumps that form inside the thyroid gland.
  • They don't usually cause any symptoms.
  • Most thyroid nodules are not cancerous (benign).
  • They are quite common and most people who have them don't notice it, until their healthcare provider discovers a nodule during a routine examination.
  • If you have a thyroid nodule further testing will be done and, depending on the results, it may be left there and monitored or surgically removed. 


Hands feel for thyroid on young woman's throat
Print this page

What is the thyroid gland?

The thyroid gland (repe tenga) is found in the lower front of the neck. It produces thyroid hormones, which are secreted into the blood and then carried throughout the body. Thyroid hormones are important because they help the body use energy and, stay warm and keep your brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working as they should.

What are thyroid nodules?

Thyroid nodules are lumps that form inside the thyroid gland. They may be filled with fluid or thyroid tissue. They're quite common and most people who have them don't notice until their healthcare provider discovers them during a routine examination. Most thyroid nodules are not cancerous (benign). However, it's important for all thyroid nodules to be thoroughly investigated so that if cancer (mate pukupuku) is detected, it can be diagnosed and treated at the earliest stage. 

Video: What Is A Thyroid Nodule?

Here's a video about thyroid nodules. This video may take a few moments to load.

(Swedish Seattle, US, 2014)

There are several conditions that can cause nodules to develop in your thyroid gland. Here are a few examples: 

  • Thyroid cyst: A thyroid cyst is a lump that's usually filled with fluid. Sometimes solid components may be mixed with fluid in thyroid cysts.
  • Iodine deficiency: A lack of iodine in your diet can sometimes cause your thyroid gland to develop thyroid nodules. But iodine deficiency is uncommon in Aotearoa New Zealand where iodine is routinely added to table salt and other foods.
  • Thyroid adenoma: This is an overgrowth of normal thyroid tissue. It's not clear why this happens.
  • Ongoing inflammation of the thyroid (thyroiditis): A thyroid disorder, called Hashimoto's disease, can cause inflammation of the thyroid which results in enlargement of thyroid nodules. This is often associated with hypothyroidism (reduced activity of the thyroid gland). 
  • Thyroid cancer: Cancerous thyroid nodules are rare – they occur in fewer than 5 in every 100 people with thyroid nodules. You are at higher risk of thyroid cancer if you:
    • have a family history of thyroid or other endocrine cancers
    • are younger than 30 years or older than 60 years of age
    • have a history of radiation exposure, particularly to the head and neck.

Most thyroid nodules cause no symptoms at all. They're usually found when a person feels a lump in their throat or sees it in the mirror. Sometimes your healthcare provider may notice the swelling during a routine examination.

In rare cases, thyroid nodules may cause pain in your neck, jaw or ear. Sometimes, if the nodule is large enough and positioned near the oesophagus (which lies behind the thyroid gland), it affects swallowing.

Once a thyroid nodule is discovered, your healthcare provider will try to determine whether the rest of your thyroid is healthy or whether the entire thyroid gland has been affected by a more general condition such as hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.

Your healthcare provider will ask you questions about your symptoms, and will feel your thyroid to see whether the entire gland is enlarged and whether a single or many nodules are present.

To check how your thyroid gland is working, your healthcare provider will also request blood tests to measure thyroid hormone levels. This is called a thyroid function test.

Sometimes your healthcare provider may order more specialised tests such as:

  • Ultrasound scan – this test can help your healthcare provider decide if the thyroid nodule is filled with fluid or thyroid tissue, and it can also measure the size of the nodule. An ultrasound is a painless test.
  • Thyroid scan (nuclear medicine scan) – during this test, radioactive iodine is injected into a vein in your arm. You lie on a table while a special camera produces an image of your thyroid on a computer screen. Read more about nuclear medicine thyroid scans(external link).
  • Fine needle biopsy – this involves removing small samples of tissue from the thyroid nodule with a thin needle. To reduce the discomfort from the needle, a local anaesthetic will be used. The tissue samples are examined under a microscope for any unusual cells that may indicate cancer.

The treatment of thyroid nodules depends mainly on the findings of the diagnostic tests and the type of nodule.

  • If the thyroid nodule is not cancerous, the nodule may be left as it is (and watched closely to make sure it doesn't grow any larger), or it may be surgically removed.
  • If the thyroid nodule is cancerous, or highly suspicious of cancer, the nodule will be removed surgically. Most thyroid cancers can be cured and hardly ever cause life-threatening problems.

The following links provide further information on thyroid nodules. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Thyroid cancer(external link) NHS Choices, UK
Thyroid nodules(external link) American Thyroid Association, US


  1. Overview of the 2015 American Thyroid Association guidelines for managing thyroid nodules and differentiated thyroid cancer(external link) NZMA, 2016
  2. Thyroid nodules(external link) American Thyroid Association, US, 2017

Need help now?

Healthline logo in supporters block

Need to talk logo

Healthpoint logo

Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Claire Salter, Pharmacist, Tauranga

Last reviewed:

Page last updated: