Can You Get Cancer in Your Nose?

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graphic of air flowing through nose

When nasal cancer first appears, people often mistake it for a common ailment, such as a cold or sinus problem, because it can cause the same symptoms:

  • Nosebleed
  • A blocked nostril
  • A decreased sense of smell

If it's not treated, nose cancer can quickly become serious. Later symptoms  again, similar to a cold  include:

  • Swollen glands
  • A watery eye
  • Pain or pressure in an ear

But there are other, later symptoms that certainly should drive patients to their doctors:

  • Numbness in the face
  • Partial loss of vision, or double vision
  • A lump or growth on the nose, face or roof of the mouth
  • A blocked nostril that hasn’t cleared up with time or antibiotics or nasal sprays

Physicians divide the broad category of nose cancer into three areas: intranasal cancer, paranasal sinus cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer. 

Intranasal cancers occur in the lining of the inner nose, and often appear to be a non-healing ulcer. "In advanced cases, this cancer can cause nasal obstruction and affect the outside appearance of the nose,” Dr. Arshad says.

While nasal polyps are benign and do not turn into cancer, “any single-sided mass in the nose should be examined and possibly biopsied by an otolaryngologist/head and neck surgeon,” he adds.

Paranasal sinus cancers can cause some of the same symptoms as other nose cancers. An advanced case of sinus cancer can cause numbness in the face or teeth and even affect the eye or eye socket, according to Dr. Arshad.

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The third type of nose cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, affects the part of the throat that is directly behind the nose. "If you’ve had a nasal swab for COVID-19, the sample is taken from the same area where nasopharyngeal cancer is found,” Dr. Arshad says.

The most common sign of this cancer is a neck mass, which signifies that the cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the neck.  Fluid in the middle ear of an adult can also be a sign of nasopharyngeal cancer. A specialist can do a full head and neck exam using a small telescope inside the nose. Imaging such as CT scans may be done along with biopsies.

Treatments are based on the type of cancer, how advanced it is and the size of the tumor.

Typically, intranasal or sinus cancers are squamous cell carcinomas or minor salivary gland tumors. Treatment will usually involve some type of surgery with radiation added later for more advanced cases. Nasopharyngeal cancers are usually treated with chemotherapy plus radiation.”