Turbinates are bony structures inside your nose covered by mucous membranes. The turbinates are essential to respiration. Their main role is to filter, warm and humidify the air that is inhaled through the nose. The mucous membrane that covers the turbinates can shrink or swell in response to changes in blood flow. Things that alter blood flow such as lying down, certain foods, allergies, medications, hormones, and infections can affect blood flow and therefore cause swelling of the turbinates.
There are three pairs of turbinates:
The inferior turbinates, the largest pair, are often the source of breathing problems. When the inferior turbinates become enlarged it is referred to as inferior turbinate hypertrophy. Chronic nasal obstruction, or a stuffy nose, is often caused by enlargement (hypertrophy) of the inferior turbinate. Congested nasal obstruction can impair normal breathing, forcing patients to breathe through the mouth and often affects their daily activities. Enlarged turbinates and nasal obstruction can also contribute to headaches and sleep disorders such as snoring and obstructive sleep apnea, as the nasal airway is the normal breathing route during sleep.
Diagnosis of turbinate hypertrophy can usually be made on your first visit. After taking your history and performing an exam we will use an endoscope, a small telescope with a light on one end and an eyepiece at the other, to examine the inside of your nose. A CT scan can also show inferior turbinate hypertrophy.
There are several medications available available to help reduce the swelling (inflammation) and improve nasal breathing. Nasal steroids, nasal antihistamines and decongestants can be used to treat inferior turbinate hypertrophy. If you do not repond to medications, it may be necessary to perform a simple surgery to reduce the size of your inferior turbinates. One such surgery uses a very fine radiofrequency wand or a small suction device or a laser to remove tissue inside the inferior turbinate. This improves the nasal airway, allowing patients to breathe easier. The procedure takes only a few minutes, is virtually painless and often results in a dramatic improvement in nasal airflow. This surgery is occasionally performed by itself, but is often combined with a septoplasty to completely address nasal obstruction. A more complex turbinate surgery may be recommended which involves resecting part of the turbinate.