What Are Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers?

To understand these cancers, it helps to know a little about the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses.

The nasal cavity

illustration showing a side view of the head with the location of the nasal cavity in relation to the mouth, hard palate, nasal bone, cartilage, frontal sinus, sphenoid sinus, nasopharynx and soft palate

The nose opens into the nasal passageway, or cavity. This cavity is a space that runs along the top of the roof of the mouth (the palate, which separates your nose from your mouth) and then turns downward to join the passage from the mouth to the throat.

The paranasal sinuses

illustration of the front view of the head showing the frontal sinus, ethmoid sinuses and maxillary sinus
illustration of the side view of the head showing the frontal sinus, ethmoid sinuses, maxillary sinus and sphenoid sinus

Sinuses are cavities (spaces) or small tunnels. They are called paranasal because they're around or near the nose. The nasal cavity opens into a network of sinuses:

  • Maxillary sinuses are in the cheek area, below the eyes on either side of the nose.
  • Frontal sinuses are above the inner eye and eyebrow area.
  • Sphenoid sinuses sit deep behind the nose, between the eyes.
  • Ethmoid sinuses are made up of many sieve-like sinuses formed of thin bone and mucous tissues. They're above the nose, between the eyes.

The sinuses are filled with air. When you have a cold or sinus infection the sinuses can become blocked (obstructed) and fill with mucus and pus, which can be uncomfortable.

The nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses do many things:

  • They help filter, warm, and moisten the air you breathe.
  • They give your voice resonance.
  • They lighten the weight of the skull.
  • They provide a bony framework for the face and eyes.

The nasal cavity and the paranasal sinuses are lined by a layer of mucus-producing tissue (mucosa). The mucosa has many types of cells, including:

  • Squamous epithelial cells, which are flat cells that line the sinuses and make up most of the mucosa
  • Glandular cells such as minor salivary gland cells, which make mucus and other fluids
  • Nerve cells, which are responsible for sensation and the sense of smell in the nose
  • Infection-fighting cells (which are part of the immune system), blood vessel cells, and other supporting cells

Other types of cells in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, including bone and cartilage cells, can also become cancer.

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers

Any of the cells that make up the mucosa can become cancer, and each type of cancer behaves or grows differently.

  • Squamous epithelial cells can become squamous cell carcinomas. This is the most common type of cancer in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses. It makes up a little over half of cancers of these areas.
  • Minor salivary gland cells can turn into adenocarcinomas, adenoid cystic carcinomas, and mucoepidermoid cancers. These also are common nasal and paranasal sinus cancers.
  • Undifferentiated carcinoma is another type of cancer that can come from mucosa cells. This is a fast-growing cancer in which the cells look so abnormal that it’s hard to tell what type of cell the cancer started in.
  • Cells that give the skin its tan or brown color are called melanocytes. Melanoma is a type of cancer that starts in these cells. It can grow and spread quickly. These cancers usually are found on sun-exposed areas of the skin but can form on the lining of the nasal cavity and sinuses or other areas inside the body.
  • Esthesioneuroblastoma is a cancer that starts in the olfactory nerve (the nerve for the sense of smell). This cancer is also called olfactory neuroblastoma. It usually starts in the roof of the nasal cavity and involves a structure called the cribriform plate. The cribriform plate is a bone deep in the skull, between the eyes, and above the ethmoid sinuses. These tumors can sometimes be mistaken for other types of tumors, like undifferentiated carcinoma or lymphoma.
  • Lymphomas (cancers starting in immune system cells called lymphocytes) can occur in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses. One type of lymphoma seen in this area, T-cell/natural killer cell nasal-type lymphoma, was previously called lethal midline granuloma. See Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for information about the diagnosis and treatment of lymphomas.
  • Sarcomas are cancers of muscle, bone, cartilage, and fibrous cells that can start anywhere in the body, including the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses. Information about sarcomas can be found on some of our other pages.

Each of these types of cancer has a distinct behavior and outlook. They cannot all be treated the same way. Many of them rarely affect the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, so they've been hard to study. Because of this, doctors must base treatment decisions on their experience with similar cancers in other parts of the head and neck.

Other growths found in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses

Some growths in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses are not cancers, but they could still cause problems.

Nasal polyps

Nasal polyps are abnormal growths inside the nasal cavity or paranasal sinuses. Polyps usually have a teardrop shape and a smooth surface. Most nasal polyps are benign (not cancer) and are caused by some type of chronic (long-lasting) inflammation in the nose. Using exams and tests, doctors can often tell benign polyps from cancer. But in some cases, polyps need to be closely checked to be sure. Small polyps that aren't causing problems might not need treatment. Larger polyps that cause problems might need to be treated with medicine or surgery.

Papillomas

Papillomas are warts that can grow inside the nasal cavity or paranasal sinuses and destroy healthy tissue. They usually have a bumpy surface. Papillomas are not cancer, but sometimes a squamous cell carcinoma will start in a papilloma. Because of the risk of cancer, papillomas in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses are removed by surgery.

Inverting papilloma. This is a type of papilloma that is classified as a benign tumor, but it tends to act more like a cancer. It tends to recur (come back) and can grow into nearby tissues. Inverted papillomas are often treated with the same type of surgery that's used for cancer.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: November 15, 2017 Last Revised: December 1, 2017

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