Nasal cytology involves examining a sample of cells or mucus from your nasal passages. This test helps doctors diagnose and monitor conditions like allergies, rhinitis, and infectious diseases.

Nasal cytology is a diagnostic technique healthcare professionals use to study the cells and cellular components in the nasal passages. It involves taking a sample of cells or mucus from your nasal passages for examination under a microscope.

A healthcare professional, often an otolaryngologist, performs this procedure to assess and diagnose nasal and respiratory conditions, such as:

  • allergies
  • chronic rhinitis
  • sinusitis

Nasal cytology can also guide the treatment of various nasal and respiratory conditions.

This article overviews nasal cytology, including its purpose, how it’s done, risks, and more.

Doctors perform nasal cytology for several reasons, including:

  • Diagnosis: Doctors can use it to assess and identify the underlying causes of nasal and respiratory conditions. Nasal cytology helps them differentiate between allergies, chronic rhinitis, sinusitis, and infectious diseases.
  • Guiding treatment: It provides doctors with the possible causes of your nasal or respiratory condition, which helps develop your treatment plan to manage your condition effectively.
  • Identifying allergies: It can help identify the presence of specific immune cells (eosinophils) associated with allergic reactions, which can help doctors diagnose allergic rhinitis.
  • Detecting infections: It can help reveal the presence of bacteria, viruses, or fungi in your nasal passages, which is essential for diagnosing infectious rhinitis or sinusitis.
  • Assessing inflammation: It can provide information about the extent and type of inflammation in the lining of your nasal cavity, helping doctors diagnose and manage conditions like nonallergic rhinitis.
  • Monitoring treatment: After starting treatment for nasal conditions, doctors may use nasal cytology to monitor your response to therapy. This helps assess the effectiveness of treatments and the need for any adjustments.
  • Research and study: Scientists also use nasal cytology in research settings to study various nasal and respiratory diseases, explore treatment options, and better understand cellular changes associated with these conditions.

What conditions can nasal cytology detect?

Nasal cytology can detect several conditions, including:

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Nasal cytology is a straightforward and relatively quick procedure, typically lasting about 20–30 minutes, which includes sample collection and examination. The procedure involves:

  • Positioning: You will be seated comfortably, usually in an examination room.
  • Sample collection: A healthcare professional, often an otolaryngologist, gently inserts a small, soft brush or swab into one of your nostrils to collect a sample of cells from the lining of your nasal passages. It might tickle a bit, but it’s generally painless and quick.
  • Sample preparation: The collected nasal cells are placed on glass slides. These slides are usually stained to make the cells visible under a microscope.
  • Microscopic examination: A pathologist or cytologist (medical professionals who specialize in analyzing samples) will examine these prepared slides under a microscope. They look at the types of cells, their quantity, and any abnormalities. This analysis helps in making a diagnosis.

Nasal cytology is typically a safe procedure with minimal associated risks.

Some people may experience mild discomfort during sample collection.

In rare cases, people may experience a nosebleed. This is more common if you have fragile nasal blood vessels.

Nasal cytology is a low risk, minimally invasive procedure with a quick recovery. You can resume your regular activities immediately. There’s no need for downtime or a recovery period.

A healthcare professional will discuss your test results with you, providing information about your nasal condition and any recommended treatments. They may also recommend additional tests if necessary.

If you’re undergoing nasal cytology to monitor a pre-existing condition, a healthcare professional will continue to work with you to manage and adjust your treatment as needed.

In addition to nasal cytology, doctors may use several tests to diagnose rhinitis. These may include:

  • Allergy testing: Allergy skin or blood tests, such as the radioallergosorbent or specific immunoglobulin E blood tests, can help identify specific allergens responsible for allergic rhinitis.
  • Nasal endoscopy: A nasal endoscopy allows a doctor to visually inspect your nasal passages using a thin, flexible tube with a camera. It can help identify structural abnormalities, polyps, or signs of chronic rhinitis.
  • Nasal provocation test: Doctors can use this test to diagnose nonallergic rhinitis by introducing potential irritants into the nasal passages to trigger symptoms.
  • Skin prick testing: Commonly used for allergic rhinitis, a skin prick test involves applying a small amount of allergen to the skin and monitoring it for an allergic reaction.
  • Rhinoscopy: This in-office procedure involves a closer examination of the nasal passages using a thin, rigid, or flexible scope.

However, the choice of tests depends on the specific symptoms and suspected causes of rhinitis. A doctor may use a combination of these tests to accurately diagnose and determine the most appropriate treatment for you.

Here are some frequently asked questions about nasal cytology.

What causes nonallergic rhinitis?

It’s not clear what causes nonallergic rhinitis, though it may be related to issues with the nerves in the mucus lining of your nasal passages. Irritants like smoke, pollution, weather changes, strong odors, or infections can trigger nonallergic rhinitis.

What does cytology look for?

Nasal cytology examines nasal cells to detect inflammation, infection, allergies, or other underlying causes of nasal and respiratory symptoms.

Is nasal cytology painful?

Nasal cytology is not painful. However, it may cause mild discomfort during sample collection. It’s generally well tolerated by most people.

Nasal cytology is an important tool for diagnosing and managing nasal and respiratory conditions. This quick, noninvasive procedure helps doctors identify the underlying causes of symptoms and guide treatment plans.

Consider speaking with a healthcare professional about the potential benefits of nasal cytology if you’re experiencing nasal or respiratory symptoms.