A polyp is any overgrowth of tissue from a surface. Polyps come in all shapes—round, droplet, and irregular being the most common.
Nasal polyps tend to occur in people with respiratory allergies. Hay fever (allergic rhinitis) is an irritation of the membranes of the nose by airborne particles or chemicals. These membranes make mucus. When irritated, they can also grow polyps. The nose is not only a passageway for air to reach the lungs; it also provides the connection between the sinuses and the outside world.
Sinuses are lined with mucus membranes, just like the nose. Polyps can easily obstruct the drainage of mucus from the sinuses. When any fluid in the body is trapped so it cannot flow freely, it becomes infected. The result, sinusitis, is a common complication of allergic rhinitis.
Causes and symptoms
Nasal polyps often plug the nose, usually one side at a time. People with allergic rhinitis are so used to having a stopped up nose they may not notice the difference when a polyp develops. Other polyps may be closer to a sinus opening, so airflow is not obstructed, but mucus becomes trapped in the sinus. In this case, there is a feeling of fullness in the head, no sense of smell, and perhaps a headache. The trapped mucus will eventually get infected, adding pain, fever, and perhaps bloody discharge from the nose.
A physical examination will identify most polyps. Small polyps located higher up or further back may be hidden from view, but they will be detected with more sophisticated medical instruments. The otorhinolaryngologist is equipped to diagnose nasal polyps. In order to perform the exam, medicine must be applied to decongest the membranes. Cotton balls soaked with one of these agents and left in the nostrils for a few minutes provide adequate shrinkage.
Most polyps can be removed by the head and neck surgeon as an office procedure called a nasal polypectomy. Bleeding, the only complication, is usually easy to control. Nose and sinus infections can be treated with antibiotics and decongestants, but if airflow is restricted, the infection will reoccur.
Polyps reappear as long as the allergic irritation continues.
If aspirin is the cause, all aspirin containing medications must be avoided.
Since most nasal polyps are the result of allergic rhinitis, they can be prevented by treating this condition. New treatments have greatly improved control of hay fever. There are now several spray medicines that are quite effective. Spray cortisone-like drugs are the most popular. Over-the-counter nasal decongestants have an irritating effect similar to the allergy they are supposed to be treating. Continued use can bring more trouble than relief and result in an addiction to nose sprays. The resulting disease, rhinitis medicamentosa, is more difficult to treat than allergic rhinitis.
Allergists and ENT surgeons both treat allergic rhinitis with a procedure called desensitization. After identifying suspect allergens using one of several methods, they will give the patient increasing doses of those allergens in order to produce blocking antibodies that will impede the allergic reaction. This is effective in a number of patients, but the treatment may take a period of months to years.
Ballenger, John Jacob. Disorders of the Nose, Throat, Ear, Head, and Neck. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1996.
Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 1996. 35th ed. Ed. Stephen McPhee, et al. Stamford: Appleton & Lange, 1995.
J. Ricker Polsdorfer, MD
Allergen—Any substance that irritates only those who are sensitive (allergic) to it.
Asthma—Wheezing (labored breathing) due to allergies or irritation of the lungs.
Sinus—Air-filled cavities surrounding the eyes and nose are lined with mucus-producing membranes. They cleanse the nose, add resonance to the voice, and partially determine the structure of the face.