Introduction 

Nasal polyps are abnormal tissue growths that grow inside the nasal passages and sinuses.

Sinuses are small, air-filled cavities found within the bones of the face. You have sinuses on either side of your nose and behind your cheekbones, eyes and forehead.

What do nasal polyps look like?

Nasal polyps vary in size. They can be yellow, grey or pink in colour. Each polyp is teardrop-shaped, and they look like grapes on a stem when fully grown.

Large nasal polyps can block your nasal passage and cause symptoms such as a blocked or runny nose and a loss of smell and taste.

These symptoms are similar to those of other conditions, such as the common cold. However, colds usually get better within 2-14 days, whereas nasal polyps do not clear up without treatment.

Read more about the symptoms of nasal polyps

What causes nasal polyps?

It is not clear what causes nasal polyps. They appear to occur as a result of inflammation (redness and swelling) inside the lining of the nasal passageways and sinuses (mucus membrane). It is not known what triggers the inflammation.

There are several factors which increase your risk of developing nasal polyps. These include:

  • asthma - a long-term condition that can cause wheezing and breathlessness
  • allergic rhinitis - where substances such as dust mites or animal fur cause cold-like symptoms, such as sneezing and a blocked nose 
  • cystic fibrosis - a condition where the lungs and digestive system become clogged with a sticky fluid
  • aspirin intolerance - where allergic-like symptoms, such as a rash, itchy skin, sneezing, a watery nose and wheezing, occur if you take aspirin; some people with an aspirin intolerance also have a similar reaction to other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen

If nasal polyps develop in or near your sinuses, they may cause a sinus infection, resulting in your face becoming painful and tender.

Nasal polyps are not cancerous and do not increase your risk of developing nasal cancer in the future.

Read more about the causes of nasal polyps.

Diagnosing nasal polyps

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine your nostrils.

If you have nasal polyps near the openings of your nostrils, they may be visible by shining a light up your nose. However, further tests may be needed to locate polyps further up your nasal passageways or in one of your sinuses.

Read more about how nasal polyps are diagnosed.

Treating nasal polyps

Nasal polyps can be treated with steroid medication (corticosteroids) to help shrink them. Corticosteroids can either be prescribed as a short course of tablets or in the form of nasal drops or spray.

Surgery is recommended for larger polyps and those that do not respond to medication. The procedure, known as endoscopic sinus surgery, is carried out using a piece of equipment called an endoscope.

The endoscope used during endoscopic sinus surgery consists of a rigid, metal tube with a camera at one end. The camera gives a clear picture of the polyps and nasal passages. The polyps are removed using tiny surgical instruments, such as a micro-debrider, which is a revolving motorised saw.

Nasal polyps usually grow back. Depending on their original size, this can take a few months or a few years after treatment with medication or surgery. People with associated conditions, such as asthma or aspirin intolerance, are more likely to have recurring polyps.

Read more about treating nasal polyps.

How common are nasal polyps?

It is difficult to estimate exactly how common nasal polyps are because small polyps that do not cause symptoms may go undetected.

However, one study estimated that around 1% of people will have nasal polyps at some point in their life. Each year in England around 5,000-6,000 people are treated for nasal polyps.

Polyps usually affect people aged 40 years or over. They are four times more common in men than in women. Children rarely get polyps; they usually only affect children with cystic fibrosis.

Page last reviewed: 13/03/2013

Next review due: 13/03/2015