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Radioactive iodine ablation is a treatment used to destroy thyroid cancer. It may be used to kill off any remaining cancer cells after surgical removal of the thyroid. Alternatively, it can be used to treat thyroid cancer which has spread. The treatment involves taking a high dose of radioactive iodine in the form of a pill or liquid. Although side effects are not common and the treatment is safe, patients typically remain slightly radioactive for a few days following ablation and this usually means a short stay in the hospital.
One of the benefits of radioactive iodine ablation is that it is a relatively simple procedure. Patients only need to swallow a capsule or consume a drink in order to take the treatment. Before ablation, it is usually necessary to stop taking thyroid hormone medication and to avoid foods containing iodine. This leaves the thyroid gland in a state in which it is ready to take up the maximum amount of radioactive iodine. Patients normally refrain from eating and drinking for a couple of hours after treatment, and are then encouraged to take plenty of fluids to flush radioactivity from the body.
As one of the effects of radioactive iodine ablation is to make patients a little radioactive, patients are required to stay in a room by themselves after treatment. Nursing staff who visit the room to check on the patient and bring meals only stay for brief intervals to minimize their own radiation exposure levels. Although patients are allowed, and encouraged, to bring items from home such as reading matter, these items might have to remain in the hospital for a while after the patient has gone home until they are no longer radioactive. A patient's own radiation levels are measured regularly while in the hospital and, usually, after a few days, levels will be low enough for the patient to return home.
Since radioactive iodine ablation treatments are relatively safe, complications of ablation are uncommon. Occasionally, the patient may have a tender neck, dry eyes and things may taste different than usual. As the effects of ablation mean that patients still give off a small amount of radioactivity when they leave the hospital, precautions are taken in the home. Patients are usually advised to stay at home, to avoid pregnant women and children, to flush the toilet twice and to sleep alone for a number of days after leaving hospital. These precautions do not mean that radioactive iodine ablation is very dangerous, but it is sensible to keep everyone's radiation exposure levels as low as possible.