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What Is the Nasal Cavity?

The nasal cavity includes the paranasal sinuses.
When a person breathes through their nose, the air is humidified on its way from the nostrils to the throat.
The mouth's hard palate forms the floor of the nasal cavity.
Upper respiratory congestion may impact the nasal cavity, causing a stuffy nose.
An image of the respiratory system, including the nasal cavity.
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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2014
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The word nasal comes from the Latin and means “in, of, or having to do with the nose.” The word cavity comes from a Latin word meaning “hollow,” the same word that cave comes from. Therefore, the nasal cavity is, roughly speaking, the hollow space in the skull, directly behind the nose.

Though the nasal cavity can roughly be thought of as a tunnel from the face to the upper part of the throat, it actually is not a single, free-flowing passage. First of all, it is divided into two sides by the nasal septum, the divider that creates the left and right nostril. The nasal septum is composed of cartilage and bone. If the septum is enlarged or deviated, it may block the airflow. The floor of the nasal cavity is formed by the hard palate on the roof of the mouth, while the walls have folded sections called turbinates, which serve to increase the surface area.

Nasal cavities have several functions. When a person breathes through his or her nose, the air is warmed and humidified on its way from the nostrils to the throat. Airborne particles are filtered out by the mucosal surface, and thereby prevented from reaching the lungs. In addition, the paranasal sinuses drain through openings called ostia into the nasal cavity and particles that have odor are trapped so that they can be smelled. There are nerves to the nasal cavity so that pressure, temperature, and pain may be sensed.

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Besides problems with the septum, mentioned earlier, there are other problems that can affect the nasal cavity. Any disease with upper respiratory congestion may result in a “stuffy nose.” Besides this, one may develop nasal polyps, nosebleeds, or rhinitis. In a more serious vein, it is possible for tumors to form in the nasal cavity. It is uncommon for someone to develop cancer in this location, but the most common type of cancerous tumor found there is squamous cell carcinoma. Other types include adenocarcinoma, esthesioneruoblastoma, inverting papilloma, lymphoma, malignant melanoma, midline granuloma, and sarcoma.

Sometimes people who do not like the shape of their nose choose to have elective surgery to alter it, and this may involve alterations to the nasal cavity. This type of surgery is referred to colloquially as a “nose job.” Plastic surgeons call it “rhinoplasty.”

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