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Don’t ignore that pesky cough

Everyone gets a cough now and again—especially this time of year. Normally, it goes away on its own and isn’t a problem. But if you have a cough that won’t go away, it could be more than just a bug or allergies. Believe it or not, in some cases, it could be cancer.

“A persistent cough isn’t uncommon,” said Geisinger endocrinologist Brian Jameson, DO. “There are plenty of reasons why you could get one: allergies, a cold or something irritating in the air. But if you notice you have a cough that won’t go away when you’re not sick, you should see your doctor because it could be a sign of something more serious.”

If you have a constant cough, especially if you are at risk for thyroid conditions, make talking to your doctor a priority. Women and people with thyroid conditions in their family are especially at risk.  

What does a cough have to do with your thyroid?
“With thyroid cancer, it’s possible that the thyroid can swell or have growths called nodules,” said Dr. Jameson. “As the nodules get larger, they can irritate your throat and lead to a long-lasting cough. For most people, this cough is a dry, hacking sort of cough.”  In addition to cough, thyroid growth can lead to pressing on the vocal cords and a hoarse voice, or pressing on the esophagus and difficulty swallowing food. You may also notice swelling or pain in the front of your lower neck, and even into your ears. 

How do you know if you have thyroid cancer?
The only way to be sure if you have a thyroid cancer is to talk to your doctor. During a routine physical, they should feel your throat to see if they can find any sort of growth on your thyroid. If they do, they will send you for further testing.

“For doctors to officially determine whether you have thyroid cancer, they will likely perform a biopsy after an ultrasound image is obtained,” said Dr. Jameson. “In a biopsy, doctors remove a small amount of thyroid tissue for testing. If the tests are positive, doctors will begin treatment.”

Thyroid cancer is relatively common, with more than 62,000 new cases recorded in the most recent year reporting is available. About three times as many women get thyroid cancer as men. However, it is very treatable. In most cases, doctors can remove all or part of the thyroid to treat the cancer, and they may use radioactive iodine tablets to treat the cancer as well.

In some cases, cancer treatment can result in full or partial removal of the thyroid. People who get their thyroid removed are then treated similarly to people with hypothyroidism, meaning they will have to vary their diet and take thyroid replacement medication. People without their thyroid are still able to live normally otherwise and without sacrificing their quality of life.  

Your doctor should check your thyroid every year during your routine physical. Still, if you develop a persistent cough or other symptoms, talk to your doctor immediately.

Brian Jameson, DO, is an endocrinologist at Geisinger. To schedule an appointment, please call 800-275-6401. 
A man coughs.