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The nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses

Men and women discussing nasal and sinus cancer

This page tells you about the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

The nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses

Your nostrils open into the nasal cavity. The nasal cavity warms and moistens the air we breathe and helps filter out harmful bacteria. It runs back from the nostrils, above the roof of your mouth and curves down to connect with your mouth at the back of your throat.

The area where the nose and throat meet is called the nasopharynx. If you have cancer here it’s called nasopharyngeal cancer. This is a different type from nasal and paranasal sinus cancer and is dealt with in a different section of the website.

Paranasal sinuses

Paranasal means around or near your nose. Sinuses are spaces or small tunnels. Paranasal sinuses are small, air filled spaces within the bones of your face. They are below and between your eyes, above and behind your nose, and behind your cheeks. They give your voice its clarity and tone and lighten the weight of your skull. There are several pairs of sinuses and cancer can develop in any of them.

The lymph nodes in your neck

Like other parts of the body, the head and neck contain lymph nodes (also called lymph glands). These small, bean shaped glands are part of the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes are often the first place cancer cells spread to when they break away from a tumour. There are major groups of lymph nodes in the neck. Nasal and paranasal sinus cancers can spread to these nodes.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about nasal cancer section.

 

 

The nasal cavity

Your nostrils open into the nasal cavity. The nasal cavity warms and moistens the air we breathe and helps filter out harmful bacteria. It runs back from the nostrils, above the roof of your mouth and curves down to connect with your mouth at the back of your throat.

The area where the nose and throat meet is called the nasopharynx. If you have cancer here it’s called nasopharyngeal cancer. This is a different type from nasal and paranasal sinus cancer and is dealt with in the nasopharyngeal cancer section

Diagram showing the position of the nasal cavity

Because the nasal cavity is close to your eyes, ears and mouth, cancer in this area can sometimes cause pressure and pain in these structures. This could affect your vision and ability to open your mouth. Cancer in the nasal cavity can also affect your sense of smell. There is information on living with these changes in the living with nasal and paranasal sinus cancer section.

 

The paranasal sinuses

Paranasal means around or near your nose. Sinuses are spaces or small tunnels. Paranasal sinuses are small, air filled spaces within the bones of your face, above and behind your nose and behind your cheekbones. They give your voice its clarity and tone and lighten the weight of your skull. There are several pairs of sinuses and cancer can develop in any of them. You have

  • Maxillary sinuses behind your cheeks, below your eyes and on either side of your nose
  • Frontal sinuses at the very top of your nose close to the eyebrows
  • Ethmoid sinuses above the nose and between the eyes
  • Sphenoid sinuses behind the ethmoid sinuses, above the nasopharynx and between your eyes

If these sinuses become infected, for example when you have a cold, they fill with mucus and become blocked. This causes the pressure and pain you feel around your nose and eyes when you have a cold (sinus pain).

Diagram showing position of the sinuses

 

The lymph nodes in your neck

Like other parts of the body, the head and neck contains lymph nodes (also called lymph glands). These small, bean shaped glands are part of the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes are often the first place cancer cells spread to when they break away from a tumour.

Diagram showing the lymph nodes in the head and neck

There are major groups of lymph nodes in the neck. Nasal and paranasal sinus cancers can spread to these nodes. But this only happens in about 15 out of every 100 (15%) of people diagnosed. If you do have spread to the lymph nodes, you may need an operation to remove lymph nodes from the same side of your neck as the cancer. More rarely, a surgeon may suggest removing nodes from both sides of your neck. These operations are called neck dissections. You may hear your surgeon call this type of surgery a radical neck dissection.

Once the surgeon has taken out the lymph nodes, a specialist in human tissues (a pathologist) examines them to see if they contain cancer cells. This is part of finding out how advanced the cancer is, in other words its stage. Finding out the stage of your cancer is important because it helps doctors decide on the most suitable treatment for you.

Cancer that begins in the lymph nodes (rather than spreading to them) is called lymphoma. If you are looking for information about lymphoma, this is not the right section for you. You need to go to the non Hodgkin lymphoma or Hodgkin lymphoma section.

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Updated: 2 July 2014