What Causes Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers?

We don’t know what causes each case of nasal cavity or paranasal sinus cancer. But we do know some of the risk factors for these cancers (See Risk Factors for Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers) and how some of them cause normal cells to become cancer. For example, some risk factors, such as workplace exposure to certain chemicals, may cause these cancers by damaging the DNA of cells that line the inside of the nose and sinuses.

Genes and cancer

The development of normal human cells mostly depends on the information contained in the cells’ DNA. DNA is the chemical in our cells that makes up our genes – the instructions for how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But, DNA affects more than how we look.

Some genes have instructions for controlling when cells grow, divide, and die:

  • Genes that help cells grow, divide, and stay alive are called proto-oncogenes.
  • Genes that help keep cell growth under control or make cells die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes.

Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on proto-oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes. This leads to cells growing out of control. Changes in many different genes are usually needed to cause nasal cavity or paranasal sinus cancer.

For more about how gene changes can lead to cancer, see Genes and Cancer.

Workplace exposures and tobacco

Scientists believe that some risk factors, such as workplace exposures to certain chemicals and tobacco use, cause these cancers by damaging the DNA of the cells that line the inside of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) 

High-risk types of HPV have been linked to oropharyngeal cancers. Some high-risk types of HPV have been found in some nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers, but because these types of cancers are very rare, more research is needed to say for sure if HPV infection causes them.

Inherited and acquired gene mutations

Some people inherit DNA mutations (changes) from their parents that increase their risk for developing certain cancers. But inherited gene changes are not believed to cause very many cancers of the nasal cavity or paranasal sinuses.

Gene changes related to these cancers usually develop during life rather than being inherited. These acquired mutations are often the result of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals like those found in the workplace or in tobacco smoke. Acquired mutations probably cause most nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers, but sometimes they happen for no apparent reason.

Not all cancers have the same gene changes. So far, few specific gene changes have been found in nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Bossi P, Farina D, Gatta G, et al. Paranasal sinus cancer. Crit Rev Oncol Hematol. 2016;98:45-61. 

Kılıç S, Kılıç SS, Kim ES, et al. Significance of human papillomavirus positivity in sinonasal squamous cell carcinoma. Int Forum Allergy Rhinol. 2017;7(10):980-989. 

Leeman JE, Katabi N, Wong, RJ, Lee NY, Romesser PB. Chapter 65 - Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.

Mendenhall WM, Dziegielewski PT, Pfister DG. Chapter 45- Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

National Cancer Institute. Paranasal Sinus and Nasal Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ)–Patient Version. November 06, 2019. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/paranasal-sinus-treatment-pdq on November 09, 2020.

Thompson LDR, Franchi A. New tumor entities in the 4th edition of the World Health Organization classification of head and neck tumors: Nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses and skull base. Virchows Arch. 2018;472(3):315-330. doi:10.1007/s00428-017-2116-0.

References

Bossi P, Farina D, Gatta G, et al. Paranasal sinus cancer. Crit Rev Oncol Hematol. 2016;98:45-61. 

Kılıç S, Kılıç SS, Kim ES, et al. Significance of human papillomavirus positivity in sinonasal squamous cell carcinoma. Int Forum Allergy Rhinol. 2017;7(10):980-989. 

Leeman JE, Katabi N, Wong, RJ, Lee NY, Romesser PB. Chapter 65 - Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.

Mendenhall WM, Dziegielewski PT, Pfister DG. Chapter 45- Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

National Cancer Institute. Paranasal Sinus and Nasal Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ)–Patient Version. November 06, 2019. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/paranasal-sinus-treatment-pdq on November 09, 2020.

Thompson LDR, Franchi A. New tumor entities in the 4th edition of the World Health Organization classification of head and neck tumors: Nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses and skull base. Virchows Arch. 2018;472(3):315-330. doi:10.1007/s00428-017-2116-0.

Last Revised: April 19, 2021

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