Thyroglossal duct cysts (TDC) are rare cysts in your throat that are present at birth (congenital). TDCs are almost always benign. These cysts are usually found and treated while people are age 10 and younger. Rarely, some people discover their cysts as adults. TDCs are treated with surgery. Once removed, most thyroglossal cysts don’t come back.
Some people are born with small soft lumps in the middle of their throats. These lumps, which can be felt and seen, are called thyroglossal duct cysts (TDC). These cysts are small, typically measuring about 2 centimeters (cm) around. They’re also rare, typically affecting about 7% of the U.S. population.
Thyroglossal duct cysts can affect children and adults, but most cysts are found in children age 10 and younger. These cysts are almost always benign — less than 1% of all thyroglossal duct cysts become cancerous. Adults are more likely than children to develop TDC cancer. Thyroglossal duct cysts are treated with surgery. Once removed, most thyroglossal cysts don’t come back.
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Most thyroglossal duct cysts don’t cause serious medical problems. There are exceptions, though, including:
No, thyroglossal cysts remain in place until they’re removed with surgery.
If you or your child has a thyroglossal duct cyst, you might first notice the cyst because there’s a lump on your or your child’s throat that moves up when you or your child swallows. You also may spot a cyst when you or your child sticks out their tongue. Sometimes, healthcare providers discover these cysts while doing a physical examination for another reason. Other symptoms include:
Thyroglossal duct cyst cancer is extremely rare, with fewer than 300 cases reported over more than 100 years. And when it occurs, it affects more adults than children. People can have TDC cancer for years without having any symptoms. Healthcare providers often discover this cancer while treating other medical conditions such as goiters. Symptoms that may be signs of thyroglossal duct cyst cancer include:
These cysts develop during gestation when your body begins building your thyroid gland. That’s the butterfly-shaped gland that makes hormones that control your metabolism. Metabolism is the pace at which your body processes things (how fast it burns food to make energy and heat).
To build the gland, thyroid cells travel from the base of your tongue to your hyoid bone. That’s a U-shaped bone that supports your tongue. Thyroid cells make that journey through what’s called the thyroglossal tract. Typically, this tract closes off and dissolves once your thyroid glands are in place. But tracts that don’t close off can fill up with fluid and mucus and become thyroglossal cysts. Researchers don’t know why some people’s tracts remain don’t dissolve.
Healthcare providers diagnose a thyroglossal duct cyst by examining your or your child’s throat and by performing an ultrasound to determine the cyst’s size.
Many times, healthcare providers discover this form of cancer while treating other medical conditions, such as surgery to remove a cyst. If they suspect a cyst may be cancerous, healthcare providers may use these tests to confirm their preliminary diagnosis:
Your healthcare provider may recommend surgery to remove the cyst if it’s infected or it makes it hard for you or your child to swallow food or liquid. They may also recommend surgery even if your cyst doesn’t have symptoms.
The most common surgery is a procedure called Sistrunk surgery. To do this surgery, healthcare providers make an incision in your or your child’s throat so they can remove the cyst, any remaining thyroglossal tract and the middle part of your or your child’s hyoid bone.
People who have Sistrunk surgery can return to school or work one week after surgery. Healthcare providers may recommend waiting two to six weeks after surgery before starting strenuous activity, particularly lifting heavy objects.
If you have TDC cancer, healthcare providers may recommend you have a Sistrunk procedure, followed by a check of your lateral neck lymph nodes and your thyroid. Depending on what they find, they may recommend additional surgery such as:
Thyroglossal duct cysts are congenital, meaning people are born with the cysts.
Most of the time, cysts removed with Sistrunk surgery don’t come back, essentially curing the condition.
Studies show surgery cures 95% of thyroglossal duct cyst cancers. Some people may have radioactive iodine treatment after surgery.
You should contact your child’s healthcare provider if:
Healthcare providers may perform several procedures to treat thyroglossal duct cyst cancer. Ask your healthcare provider about specific post-surgery complications. Generally speaking, you should contact your healthcare provider if:
Thyroglossal duct cysts are rare, so you may be surprised to learn your child has one. If you have a cancerous thyroglossal duct cyst, you’ll also have questions for your healthcare provider. Here are some suggestions for that conversation:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
It may be unnerving to find an unusual lump on your or your child’s throat. If the lump turns out to be a thyroglossal duct cyst (TDC), you may take some comfort in knowing these cysts are almost always benign and don’t come back after they’re surgically removed. There are times, however, when thyroglossal duct cysts are cancerous. TDC cancer is treated with surgery. Studies show 95% of thyroglossal duct cyst cancer is cured with surgery and follow-up treatment. Thyroglossal duct cysts usually aren’t painful and most people don’t notice them unless the cyst makes it hard to swallow. If you notice a lump on your throat or your child’s throat, consider contacting your healthcare provider so they can examine the lump and recommend treatment.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/01/2022.
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