Medically termed a “concha” — Latin for shell — due to its rounded, linear shape, an inferior turbinate is part of a group of bones around the nose supporting breathing activity. This group generally consists of three, or sometimes four, conchal bones arranged in shelf-like layers, with the largest bottom bone popularly called the “inferior turbinate.” This nomenclature is due to the air-cleaning functions of the conchae, which are felt to resemble those of turbines.
The bones of the turbinates are covered with a layer of sticky material, or mucous membrane, looking somewhat like a soggy sponge and covered with small, thin, threadlike filaments, called “cilia.” The cilia, which are in constant motion, work to move inhaled bacteria and other debris over to the throat area, keeping it away from the lungs. Since the inferior turbinate is the largest bone, it provides the greatest surface area of mucous membrane for cleaning and warming the air taken into the lungs to a body temperature of 98.6° F (37° C).
The inferior turbinate connects to the nostril by an open passageway near the bottom of the nose. It also connects to the maxilla, or upper jaw bone, at the same location where the maxillary sinus opens into the nose. Due to this close proximity, if the maxillary sinus were to develop a sinus infection it could also affect the mucous membrane of the inferior turbinate, which has a large surface area of mucous cells that can dry out and become infected.
Sinus inflammation can create facial pain due to duct obstruction. Inflammation and obstruction of the maxillary sinuses could cause the pain to occur around the inferior turbinate area in the inner cheek. Since sinus infections are generally due to viruses, they tend to clear up in a week or two. For continued facial pain, however, treatment by a medical doctor is recommended — such as by an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in treating ear, nose, and throat problems.
Problems that can affect the inferior turbinates include allergic reactions, or autoimmune disease, in which the body attacks its own mucous cells rather than foreign organisms. The inferior turbinates can also swell from a reaction to airborne environmental toxins, or from an unknown cause. This swelling can become so pronounced that it can lead to an obstruction of breathing through the nose. In this event, surgery may be performed to reduce the size of the inferior turbinates, called a turbinoplasty.