Inferior Turbinate Hypertrophy

What is inferior turbinate hypertrophy?

Turbinates are structures located inside the nose, along the sides of the nasal cavities. They are made of bone and are covered by soft tissue known as “mucosa.” Their function is to regulate airflow, and to warm and humidify the air you breathe in.

Turbinates achieve this in part by swelling up periodically with increased blood flow, and this process characteristically alternates between sides every few hours (called the “nasal cycle”). This results in airflow being temporarily restricted on one side before alternating to the other side. This is one reason patients may feel their nasal obstruction “switches sides.”

There are three pairs of turbinates, inferior turbinates being the largest and located lowest in the nose. If the inferior turbinates are too large (called “inferior turbinate hypertrophy”), they can cause nasal obstruction in one or both sides of the nose. This enlargement can be caused by swelling of the mucosa due to various forms of rhinitis, but can also be due to thickened or abnormally positioned turbinate bones.

Inferior turbinate hypertrophy symptoms

The primary symptom of inferior turbinate hypertrophy is nasal obstruction, meaning that airflow is blocked through either one or both of the nostrils. Nasal obstruction may also be due to a deviated nasal septum, and these two conditions frequently occur together.

Inferior turbinate hypertrophy treatment options

There are both medical and surgical treatment options available for those with inferior turbinate hypertrophy, and treatment depends on the cause of the turbinate enlargement. Medical treatment options include:

  • Nasal or oral steroid sprays
  • Nasal or oral antihistamines
  • Nasal saline sprays or high volume irrigations
  • Oral decongestants (patients should avoid nasal decongestants as these can cause dependence and a relapse in congestion when stopping the medication)
nasal cavity with severe nasal obstruction
Figure A: View of a left nasal cavity. The nasal cavity is completely blocked (obstructed) due to severe swelling of the inferior turbinate.
nasal cavity after inferior turbinate reduction
Figure B: View of a left nasal cavity (from Fig. A). The swelled inferior turbinate was surgically reduced in size allowing air to flow freely throughout the nasal cavity.

If medical therapies do not alleviate symptoms, surgical therapies may be part of your treatment plan. Surgery for inferior turbinate hypertrophy may involve the reduction of the soft tissue lining (mucosa) of the turbinate, and/or removal of the turbinate bone if the bone is thickened or abnormally positioned. It is important to note that the mucosa itself is not removed, it is only reduced from the inside. The outer mucosal lining is left intact to help warm and humidify inhaled air.

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