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A new study suggests exposure to iodine in the NICU could put vulnerable infants with congenital hypothyroidism at risk for worsened thyroid dysfunction.

As we discussed earlier, the butterfly-shaped gland at the front of your neck works ceaselessly throughout life to regulate metabolism, hormones, and other regulatory functions.

For premature infants and newborns with congenital hypothyroidism, research published in The Journal of Nutrition points to the possibility that iodine exposure in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) may set in motion lifelong dysfunction of the thyroid.

Congenital hypothyroidism is a term used to describe a complete or partial loss of thyroid gland function at birth.  The term pertains to the condition where the thyroid produces less than optimum levels of the hormones needed to regulate growth and health.  While symptoms of thyroid deficiency can be more pronounced in adults, infants are diagnosed through routine blood tests at birth or when a caregiver expresses concern about activity or feeding difficulties. Congenital hypothyroidism affects females twice as often as males and occurs in about one in every 2,000 to 4,000 infants.

Iodine and Hypothyroidism in Developing Children

Around the world, a lack of iodine in the diet of a pregnant mother is a common factor in the development of hypothyroidism in a developing child.  Iodine by itself is critical for the production of thyroid hormone—yet overexposure to iodine is similarly damaging.  This study notes time in a neonatal unit at birth can create a lifetime of thyroid problems for a newborn.

In the study, researchers compared the blood iodine levels at birth of 907 children diagnosed with congenital hypothyroidism, and 909 children with regular thyroid hormone levels.

Infants cared for in the NICU were more likely to have congenital hypothyroidism than children who had not been admitted to the NICU.  And among infants with hypothyroidism, those who had been in the NICU had higher levels of iodine than those similarly diagnosed, but without a NICU stay.

Premature and newborn children can be exposed to iodine topically and internally as a result of disinfecting solutions swabbed on their skin prior to a procedure, or delivered internally in the course of an imaging study.  Study author, Dr. James L. Mills states, “Limiting iodine exposure among this group of infants whenever possible may help lower the risk of losing thyroid function.”

Diagnostic and treatment services in the NICU can be life-saving for infants whose health is challenged from the moment of birth.  This study suggests that NICU’s move away from solutions that include iodine to give baby their best chance at a healthy life—and a healthy thyroid.

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