The thyroid gland is one of the most radiosensitive human organs. While it is well known that radiation exposure increases the risk of thyroid cancer, less is known about its effects in relation to non-malignant thyroid diseases. The aim of this review is to evaluate the effects of high- and low-dose radiation on benign structural and functional diseases of the thyroid. We examined the results of major studies from cancer patients treated with high-dose radiotherapy or thyrotoxicosis patients treated with high doses of iodine-131, patients treated with moderate- to high-dose radiotherapy for benign diseases, persons exposed to low doses from environmental radiation, and survivors of the atomic bombings who were exposed to a range of doses. We evaluated radiation effects on structural (tumors, nodules), functional (hyper- and hypothyroidism), and autoimmune thyroid diseases. After a wide range of doses of ionizing radiation, an increased risk of thyroid adenomas and nodules was observed in a variety of populations and settings. The dose response appeared to be linear at low to moderate doses, but in one study there was some suggestion of a reduction in risk above 5 Gy. The elevated risk for benign tumors continues for decades after exposure. Considerably less consistent findings are available regarding functional thyroid diseases including autoimmune diseases. In general, associations for these outcomes were fairly weak, and significant radiation effects were most often observed after high doses, particularly for hypothyroidism. A significant radiation dose–response relationship was demonstrated for benign nodules and follicular adenomas. The effects of radiation on functional thyroid diseases are less clear, partly due to the greater difficulties encountered in studying these diseases.
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Vol. 174 • No. 6b