Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers

Learn about these cancers of the nose

Nose cancer, or cancer in the nasal cavity or the four paranasal sinuses that surround it, is a relatively rare type of cancer. It accounts for between 3% and 5% of all head and neck cancer cases in the United States each year.

These head and neck cancers account for just 4% of cancers overall, and nasal cancer and paranasal sinus subtypes are a tiny fraction of them. They are different from nasopharyngeal cancer affecting the throat area. Nasal cancers affect older people most, with 80% of cases seen in those aged 55 and older, and are seen more often in people assigned male at birth.

This article discusses these cancers, their symptoms, and possible causes. It also explains how nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers are diagnosed and treated.

Senior Woman With a Headache
vitapix / Getty Images

How Nasal Sinuses Work

A sinus is a space or hollow area in your body that doesn't hold or transport other contents (so veins aren't sinuses because they carry blood). There are sinuses in the heart and other parts of the body too, but most people mean the nasal cavity and its four paired paranasal sinuses. These sinuses are called:

  • Maxillary sinuses, the largest type found on either side of the nose and under the eyes
  • Frontal sinuses, found above the eyebrows
  • Ethmoid sinuses, a linked network of smaller sinuses between your eyes
  • Sphenoid sinuses, found deep in the nose and behind the eyes

Healthy paranasal sinuses are typically filled with air, though they can be filled with mucus and other contents due to an infection or inflammation. This can interfere with the function of your sinuses, which includes filtering and warming the air you breathe and providing support for the skull.

Where Nasal Cancer Grows

The maxillary sinus is the most common site for nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers, and up to 90% of these cases are diagnosed as squamous cell carcinoma.

Less often, a cancer will affect the nasal cavity, the vestibule at the entrance of the nose, or the ethmoid sinuses. Rarely are these cancers found in the frontal or sphenoid sinuses.

Apart from the squamous cells, the sinuses and nasal passage are made up of many other types of cells. They include bone, nerve, and muscle cells, as well as melanocytes (skin cells) and the lymphocytes found in your immune system.

For this reason, many types of cancers affecting the sinuses can arise. Some examples include:

  • Melanoma, a type of skin cancer 
  • Sarcoma, which can affect bone, muscle, or skin
  • Lymphoma, a blood cancer involving your lymphocytes
  • Esthesioneuroblastoma, a rare type of cancer that forms in the tissues of the upper part of the nasal cavity. It is the most commone type of nasal cavity cancer in children.

Most of the nasal cancer and paranasal sinus cancers are diagnosed as squamous cell carcinoma. Adenocarcinomas, which arise from gland structures and systems in your body, like your salivary glands, are the next most common type.

Nose Cancer Symptoms

One complication with nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers is that many of the early symptoms are much the same as those you might find with a common cold or flu. They include:

Because these symptoms are so common, many people with these cancers do not seek treatment until a later stage when the cancer has advanced. In fact, a 2021 study of 184 of these cancer cases in Pakistan found more than 70% were initially diagnosed with stage IV disease.

At that point, the cancer has spread to nearby structures such as the eyes. It may cause more serious symptoms, such as nose bleeds or tooth pain, that cause people to see a healthcare provider.

Nose Cancer Causes

Cancers of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses are caused by several factors. Among them are genetic changes, or mutations, you may have inherited.

Environmental exposure may also raise the risk of developing these cancers. In some cases, these exposures are linked to materials found in the workplace. They include:

  • Dust inhalation (nickel, chromium, leather, textiles, flour and wood)
  • Radiation (like radium found in painting dials of watches or radon exposure)
  • Glues and mineral oils
  • Formaldehyde

Lifestyle factors also may play a role. Smoking and alcohol use are known to be major risk factors for these cancers.

Some cases of nose cancer and paranasal sinus cancers may be linked to another health condition. The link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and oral cancers is well established, for example, but HPV also may contribute to nasal and paranasal cancers, too.

There is some research evidence linking the Epstein-Barr virus with a risk of these cancers, but scientists continue to try to better understand this relationship.

Diagnosing Nasal Cancer

The symptoms of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers can seem much like those of another condition, especially in the early stages. Your healthcare provider will need to take a complete medical history, perform a physical exam, and rely on diagnostic test results.

An ENT specialist, or otolaryngologist, may pay special attention to the results of:

  • Eye exams and eye motion, when a tumor is suspected
  • Any pain when pressing on, or palpating, the sinuses
  • A direct visual inspection, assisted by imaging technologies
  • The results of a tissue sample, or biopsy, of the site

Some of the imaging tests that may be used to confirm a nasal cancer include:

A PET scan can be used to both diagnose a new cancer and see if, and how much, it has spread. It also can be used later to reassess a cancer to see how well treatment is working.


Cancers of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses are types of head and neck cancers. As with other types of cancer, a key part of the diagnosis rests on how much the cancer has grown and spread, also called its stage (Stage 0, I, II, III, and IV).

The TNM staging method is commonly used to describe the characteristics of a tumor. When using it:

  • The T stands for tumor and refers to the size of the primary tumor.
  • The N stands for lymph nodes, and any spread found in your lymphatic system.
  • The M stands for metastases, or the spread to more distant parts of the body.

The greater the stage, the more severe the head and neck cancer. In these stages:

  • Stage 0 cancer is carcinoma in situ and exists only in the place it started. If caught early, Stage 0 cancer is often curable.
  • Stage 1 cancer has spread throughout the mucosa, or outer layer of the nasal cavity or sinuses, but has yet to penetrate bone. There is no lymph node involvement or spread of the cancer.
  • Stage 2 cancer has made its way into bone. It has not spread to lymph nodes or distant parts of the body.
  • Stage 3 cancer can refer to a tumor that has grown into bone and other structure more extensively and hit the lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4 cancer has spread a great deal to nearby structures and has metastasized.

Rarely do head and neck cancers—including nose cancers and paranasal sinus tumors—spread to lymph nodes or distant body parts. However, that is the case in 20% to 40% of people who have these cancers but don't respond to conventional treatment.

Maxillary sinus cancers—the most common types of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers—may go undetected for a long time. It's one reason why there are additional subtypes and steps in staging for these cancers.

Nose Cancer Treatment

The treatment of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers will depend on several factors. They include your overall health, as well as the stage and spread of the cancer.

An otherwise healthy person with stage 1 cancer may be cured with surgery alone, while a more advanced cancer may require other cancer treatment options. These treatments may include:

In people who have very advanced and incurable disease, treatment may be palliative with the goal of slowing the cancer's growth and extending quality of life.

Is There a Specific Type of Nose Cancer Surgery?

Nose cancer surgery is called wide local excision, to remove the cancer cells and tissue near them. If cancer is in the wall between nostrils, called the septum, much of it may be removed. When nose cancer is on the side wall, surgery is called open medial maxillectomy. These surgeries can be complicated because they're close to the eyes, mouth, and key blood vessels and nerves.


Head and neck cancers are relatively rare when compared with the rates of other cancer types. The subset of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers is even more rare, with maxillary sinuses most affected.

With these cancers, the typical symptoms are much like the common cold or similar respiratory infection. People often don't seek medical help until these symptoms persist for quite some time without going away. It's for this reason that many people with nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers receive a late diagnosis.

However, the earlier a diagnosis is made, the faster people receive appropriate care. This may lead to better outcomes and improve their chances of survival.

A Word From Verywell

Nose cancer and paranasal sinus cancers are rare, and your healthcare provider may not initially suspect them. Be sure to raise your concerns, especially if you have exposures that create a risk, a family history of such cancer, or symptoms like a runny nose that doesn't go away.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the survival rates for nasal cancers?

    As of March 2022, the five-year survival rate for people who have a localized cancer is 85%. For people with some spread near the site, it's 52%. Among people who have a nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer diagnosis with spread to lymph nodes and distant regions of the body, the five-year survival rate is 42%.

  • Can nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers be treated on a genetic basis?

    Research to identify the genetic changes with nose cancers is ongoing, but there aren't yet gene-based drug treatment options like those for breast, lung, and other types of cancer. Combination approaches with immune checkpoint inhibitors and other targeted drugs may one day improve treatment outcomes.

  • Can you smell cancer in your nose?

    Nose cancer is more likely to reduce your sense of smell overall. That's the case with olfactory neuroblastoma, a cancer that starts in nerves you need to smell things. Nasal polyps, which aren't cancer, can do this too. If you have an unusual odor in your nose, it's more likely to be an infection. Have your healthcare provider check it out.

  • Does nasal cancer grow fast?

    It depends on the type of cancer cells. Some cancers grow more slowly but nose cancer is often advanced by the time it is diagnosed. Others, including certain types of sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, can be more aggressive and grow quickly.

17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Key Statistics About Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers.

  2. Kosugi Y, Suzuki M, Fujimaki M, et al. Radiologic criteria of retropharyngeal lymph node metastasis in maxillary sinus cancerRadiation Oncology. 2021;16(1):190. doi:10.1186/s13014-021-01917-z

  3. Safi C, Spielman D, Otten M, et al. Treatment strategies and outcomes of pediatric esthesioneuroblastoma: a systematic reviewFront Oncol. 2020;10:1247. doi:10.3389/fonc.2020.01247

  4. Park M, Cho J, Ryu J, Jeong HS. Diagnosis and management of malignant sublingual gland tumors: a narrative reviewGland Surg. 2021;10(12):3415-3423. doi:10.21037/gs-21-620

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cold Versus Flu.

  6. Dhanani R, Faisal M, Shahid H, Malik KI, Jamshed A, Hussain R. Outcomes of management of sinonasal malignancies at a dedicated cancer institution: A retrospective studyAnnals of Maxillofacial Surgery. 2021;11(1):115. doi:10.4103%2Fams.ams_16_21

  7. American Cancer Society. Risk Factors for Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers.

  8. Aupérin A. Epidemiology of head and neck cancers: an updateCurrent Opinion in Oncology. 2020;32(3):178-186. doi:10.1097/cco.0000000000000629

  9. Liao CC, Yu HJ, Lu TC, Chen YL, Chen JW. Endoscopic view of hpv-related multiphenotypic sinonasal carcinomaEar Nose Throat J. 2020;99(2):96-98. doi:10.1177%2F0145561319884199

  10. Wan Y, An S, Zhou Y, Tang M, Liu Q. A Solo Dance or a Tango? Biochem Insights. 2019;12:1178626419886280. doi:10.1177/1178626419886280

  11. National Cancer Institute. Paranasal Sinus and Nasal Cavity Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®): Health Professional Version.

  12. National Cancer Institute. Stage IVC Maxillary Sinus Cancer.

  13. American Cancer Society. Surgery for Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers.

  14. American Cancer Society. Survival Rates for Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers.

  15. van Harten AM, Brakenhoff RH. Targeted treatment of head and neck (Pre)cancer: preclinical target identification and development of novel therapeutic applicationsCancers. 2021;13(11):2774. doi:10.3390/cancers13112774

  16. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Olfactory neuroblastoma.

  17. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma.

Additional Reading

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, is a medical writer and editor covering new treatments and trending health news.