First of all, sinus polyps (sometimes called sinus cysts) are not cancerous growths. In fact, they have nothing to do with sinus cancer. Nasal polyps are teardrop-shaped growths or swollen tissue that appear on the mucous membrane covering the surface of nasal passages and sinuses.
Depending on their size and location, these growths may go from barely noticeable to extremely unpleasant. Polyps range in size from tiny to about the size of a small seedless grape. Small polyps located in the nasal passage or sinuses hardly cause any symptoms and are barely noticeable.
On the other hand, large growths and/or prolific clusters can restrict breathing through one or both nostrils and also slow down or prevent sinus drainage altogether. Bacteria and viruses love this environment; without adequate drainage, puss filled pockets soon appear, followed by a vicious sinus attack… and therein lies the danger.
How the Mucous Membrane Works
As mentioned above, the nasal passages and sinuses are lined with a mucous membrane. This membrane contains millions of tiny blood vessels and minute hair-like growths called ‘cilia’. Mother Nature demonstrated an incredible piece of biotechnology with the mucous membrane. This mechanism performs three invaluable and breathtakingly elegant roles.
The mucous membrane continuously secretes a sticky fluid (mucous) in order to trap foreign particles, such as bacteria, viruses, dust, pollen and airborne pollution. The mucous membrane has a corrugated surface containing many nooks and crannies of varying depths. This not only increases its surface area, but also causes vortexes and eddies that agitate the inhaled air in a similar manner to river water flowing down a rapid. This action enhances the scrubbing and filtering effect of the sticky mucous.
Once these particles are caught, the cilia sweep back and forth, thus propelling the saturated mucous outwards. The waste then exits through the nose and/or out the back of the throat. In addition to the static and turbulent filtering actions, the mucous membrane performs a third essential role.
As the air flows over this extended area, it is heated or cooled (depending on the outside air temperature) to close to body temperature while being moisturized at the same time. This results in an ample supply of warm, moist and clean air to the lungs… That is until unwelcome nasal polyps disrupt the air flow and force you to breathe through the mouth.
What Causes Sinus Polyps?
The precise biological action that initiates the growth of polyps is unknown. However, studies show that initial growth is triggered by a number of factors:
- Prolonged and sustained inflammation of the mucous membrane covering the sinuses and nasal cavities. People suffering from chronic sinusitis (long-term and repetitive) with attacks lasting longer that 12 weeks are prone to the development of sinus polyps.
- Age: People over the age of 40 often develop polyps for no apparent reason.
- Allergens and pollution are a known cause of inflammation followed by the growth of polyps. Therefore people suffering from sinus allergies are at risk.
- This also applies to fungal growth in the nasal passages as experienced by people suffering from fungal sinus infection.
- Children with cystic fibrosis face a high risk of developing sinus polyps.
- Hereditary factors are thought to contribute toward the development of polyps.
There is much ongoing research being conducted into the causes, treatment and prevention of these troublesome growths.
What Are The Symptoms?
If left untreated, the number and size of sinus polyps will increase with the passage of time. An abundance of small polyps or one or two large growths will tend to obstruct the sinuses and nasal passages. This obstruction will eventually lead to one or more of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty in breathing through the nose caused by constant stuffiness.
- Postnasal drip (mucous discharge via the back of the throat).
- Runny nose.
- Persistent symptoms of a common cold.
- Impaired or loss of the sense of smell and taste.
- Facial swelling followed by double vision.
- Facial pain leading to a sinus polyp headache.
- Itching around the eyes.
- Snoring. Sometimes followed by sleep apnea (patient stops breathing for extended periods during the night). This condition could be dangerous.
- Frequent sinus infection. Polyps hinder mucous drainage, and this inevitably causes infection. This damming effect creates a build-up inside the sinus cavities… and this is a natural breeding ground for fungi, bacteria and viruses.
As mentioned earlier, people with small polyps are often asymptomatic (experience no noticeable symptoms).