What Are Nasal Polyps (and Are They Cancerous)?

These growths are usually harmless, but they can affect quality of life.

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You may have never heard of nasal polyps until you were diagnosed by your doctor. As a result, you may have a lot of questions about what they are—and what they mean for your overall health. More importantly, are they cancerous?

To put it simply: “Nasal polyps are benign growths of the nose,” says David Edelstein, MD, FACS, chief of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital. “They're these balloon-like structures that usually grow from the sinuses into the nose.”

Benign Growths

It’s important to distinguish between polyps and tumors. As Dr. Edelstein mentioned, polyps of the nose are typically benign. In other words, they’re generally not cancerous.

There’s one exception: Polyps that only grow on one side of the nose could signal cancer.

“Most nasal polyps that are benign are bilateral, [meaning] they're on both sides of the nose,” says Dr. Edelstein. When they only occur on one side of the nose, they might actually be cancerous. If you have a one-sided polyp, your doctor will likely refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for a biopsy.

Understanding Nasal Polyps

You might be curious about why the polyps are developing in the first place. Is it something you did wrong? Are they preventable?

Generally speaking, polyps tend to be the result of long-term irritation or inflammation. Thus, anything that irritates the sinuses or nasal cavities (like an allergy) can increase the risk of polyps.

“There are a lot of things that cause nasal polyps, and there's probably a whole family of diseases. Chronic infection can cause nasal polyps, allergies can cause nasal polyps, [and] fungus can cause nasal polyps,” says Dr. Edelstein.

Finally, there are also certain medical conditions that increase the risk of polyps, such as cystic fibrosis, asthma, and aspirin sensitivity.

How Do You Know If You Have Them?

Most people find out they have polyps in the nose when they go to the doctor complaining of a blocked nasal cavity. Other symptoms include congestion, loss of sense of smell or taste, or pressure in the face. If you have these symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor and not self-diagnose.

Symptoms of polyps can mimic symptoms of allergies and sinus infections. That's why a diagnosis requires your doctor to examine inside the nose. They'll be able to spot and recognize polyps pretty quickly.

Treatment Options for Nasal Polyps

Treating polyps in the nose involves a variety of strategies. It may involve treating the underlying problem causing inflammation in the nasal cavity. For example, antihistamines to treat allergies can help treat polyps. Similarly, treating a bacterial infection with antibiotics can reduce polyps from infections.

Additionally, some treatments can help reduce polyp size and minimize symptoms. This may include steroid sprays, oral steroids, and saline rinses. For very large polyps that block breathing, surgery to remove the polyp may be the best option.

Polyps in the nose are very common, and they are nothing to worry about. However, treatment is important to improve breathing and quality of life.