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Diseases and Conditions
Nasal polypsFrom MayoClinic.com
Special to CNN.com
It's hard to breathe, your nose drips constantly and your sense of smell just isn't what it used to be. If this sounds like you, you probably blame allergies or a chronic sinus infection. But in some cases, your symptoms may be due to nasal polyps — soft, noncancerous (benign) growths that develop on the lining of your nose or sinuses.
Small nasal polyps usually cause few problems, but larger ones can affect your breathing and diminish your sense of smell. Sometimes they may cause dull headaches or snoring, and in rare cases, massive polyps can alter the shape of your face.
Nasal polyps result from chronic inflammation in the lining of your nose or sinuses, but just what triggers the inflammation isn't always clear. Although nasal polyps can affect anyone, they're more common in people older than 40 and in adults and children with conditions such as asthma, chronic sinus infections, hay fever and cystic fibrosis.
Medications are the most common treatment for small nasal polyps. Surgery may be needed to remove larger growths, but polyps frequently return.
Signs and symptoms
You may have a single nasal polyp or several, clustered together like grapes on a stem. The polyps are generally soft and pearl colored, with a consistency like jelly. Very small single or multiple polyps may not cause any problems, but larger ones are likely to obstruct the airways in your nose, making it difficult to breathe. This may lead to mouth breathing, especially in children.
Other signs and symptoms of nasal polyps include:
Although you may think of your nose mainly in terms of its appearance, it filters, warms and moistens the air you breathe, and it transmits scent-related information to your brain.
Your nose is mainly composed of bone, cartilage and mucous membrane. Each nasal cavity contains three or four bony shelves (turbinates) that curve from the outer part of your nose toward the septum — a thin, cartilage-and-bone divider that separates your nasal cavity. A thick mucous membrane covers both the turbinates and septum. This acts as a filter to remove bacteria and dirt particles, which are swept out of your nose by tiny hairs called cilia.
When incoming air is cold or dry, the highly sensitive tissue that lines the turbinates swells, narrowing your nasal passages and slowing the flow of air so that it becomes warm and moist before reaching your lungs.
Your nose also contains olfactory nerves that pick up scents and send the information to your brain, where the scents are identified. Without the nose-brain connection, you couldn't smell mom's apple pie or the ripeness of a fresh peach. In fact, without the olfactory nerves, you wouldn't be able to taste those foods either because most of your ability to taste depends on your sense of smell.
How nasal polyps form
Having a condition that causes chronic inflammation in your nose or sinuses is the greatest risk factor for nasal polyps. Children with cystic fibrosis and people with allergic fungal sinusitis — a serious allergy to environmental fungus — are especially likely to be affected. Nasal polyps also occur in a majority of people with Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare disease that inflames the blood vessels (vasculitis). You're also at high risk if you have asthma, chronic hay fever or chronic sinus infections.
Other risk factors for nasal polyps include:
When to seek medical advice
A stuffy, runny nose and diminished sense of smell are the hallmarks of nasal polyps. But they also may be signs of many other conditions, including the common cold. Colds, however, generally clear in about a week, whereas nasal polyps don't go away on their own. See your doctor if your breathing problems and runny nose persist.
Screening and diagnosis
To help diagnose nasal polyps, your doctor will ask about your medical history and examine your nasal passages. Sometimes you may also have a computerized tomography (CT) scan to help determine the size and exact location of the polyps, including any polyps in your sinuses.
Children who have both nasal polyps and hay fever may have allergy skin tests, which can provide important information about allergic sensitivities. Allergy skin tests aren't uncomfortable for most children and can usually be completed in 30 minutes or less.
A single, small nasal polyp rarely causes complications, but a large polyp or many smaller polyps (polyposis) may lead to the following:
If you have one or more small polyps, your doctor is likely to prescribe a corticosteroid nasal spray such as fluticasone (Flonase), triamcinolone (Nasacort), budesonide (Rhinocort), flunisolide (Nasarel, Nasalide) or mometasone (Nasonex). These medications relieve inflammation, increase nasal airflow and may help shrink polyps.
Side effects of steroid nasal sprays are far less serious than are those of oral steroids and may include nosebleeds, headache or sore throat.
Other medications for nasal polyps include:
In many cases, polyps can't be prevented. But if you have asthma, hay fever or chronic sinus infections, managing your symptoms may reduce the chances that polyps will develop or recur. That means taking medications as your doctor suggests and avoiding — as much as possible — indoor and outdoor allergens and pollutants.
Irrigating your sinuses with salt water may help relieve mild nasal congestion and eliminate mucus. Avoid OTC saline sprays that contain additives such as benzalkonium, which can actually inflame the mucous lining of your nose and exacerbate your symptoms. Instead, look for preservative-free saline sprays.
To make your own saline solution, mix 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda in 8 ounces of warm water. Pour some of the solution into your cupped hand and sniff into your nostrils. You can also inject the solution using an ear bulb or syringe. Then gently clear your nose with a tissue.
February 22, 2005