Overview

Iodine is a chemical element. The body needs iodine but cannot make it. The iodine needed by the body must come from the diet. As a rule, there is very little iodine in food, unless it has been added during processing. Processed food typically contains more iodine due to the addition of iodized salt. Most of the world's iodine is found in the ocean, where it is concentrated by sea life, especially seaweed.

The thyroid gland needs iodine to make hormones. If the thyroid doesn't have enough iodine to do its job, systems in the body cause the thyroid to work harder. This can cause an enlarged thyroid gland (goiter), which causes a swollen neck.

Other consequences of not having enough iodine (iodine deficiency) are also serious. Iodine deficiency and the resulting low levels of thyroid hormone can cause women to stop ovulating, leading to infertility. Iodine deficiency can also lead to an autoimmune disease of the thyroid and may increase the risk of getting thyroid cancer. Some researchers think that iodine deficiency might also increase the risk of other cancers such as prostate, breast, endometrial, and ovarian cancer.

Iodine deficiency during pregnancy is serious for both the mother and the baby. It can lead to high blood pressure during pregnancy for the mother and mental retardation for the baby. Iodine plays an important role in development of the central nervous system. In extreme cases, iodine deficiency can lead to cretinism, a disorder that involves severely stunted physical and mental growth.

Iodine deficiency is a common world health problem. The most recognized form of deficiency is goiter. Additionally, across the globe iodine deficiency is thought to be the most common preventable cause of mental retardation. Early in the twentieth century, iodine deficiency was common in the US and Canada, but the addition of iodine to salt has improved public health. The addition of iodine to salt is required in Canada. In the US, iodized salt is not required, but it is widely available. Researchers estimate that iodized salt is used regularly by about half the US population.

Iodine is taken by mouth to prevent and treat iodine deficiency and its consequences, including goiter and some thyroid disorders. It is also used for treating lumpy breasts (fibrocystic breast disease) and breast pain (mastalgia).

Iodine is also used for radiation emergencies, to protect the thyroid gland against radioactive iodides. Potassium iodide tablets for use in a radiation emergency are available as FDA-approved products (ThyroShield, Iosat) and on the Internet as food supplements. Potassium iodide should only be used in a radiation emergency, not in advance of an emergency to prevent sickness.

Iodine is sometimes applied to the skin for skininflammation and to kill germs and facilitate wound healing. It is also used prevent soreness inside the mouth or along the digestive tract, and other conditions, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.

Iodine is used in the vagina to prevent post-Cesarean swelling of the lining of the uterus.

Iodine is also used for water purification.

How does it work ?

Iodine reduces thyroid hormone and can kill fungus, bacteria, and other microorganisms such as amoebas. A specific kind of iodine called potassium iodide is also used to treat (but not prevent) the effects of a radioactive accident.

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