While playing his usual weekly game of pick up softball, Dan slid into home plate and was inadvertently whacked in the nose by the catcher. Initially, he suffered some bleeding and a blackened eye. But, over the next few months, he started to notice a bit of difficulty breathing through his right nostril. At first, he ignored it.

Over time, though, he noticed a persistent stuffiness in his nose and that winter, he suffered five colds within five months. Finally, Dan made an appointment with his doctor who, after a brief physical exam, discovered that Dan had a deviated septum.

The Role of the Septum in Your Nose

A septum is any wall that divides two cavities. In the nose, the septum runs down the center of the nose and divides the nose into two separate chambers. The septum itself is made up of two parts. Toward the far back of the nose, the septum is hard bone. At the middle and towards the tip, it is made of cartilage—a tough, semi-flexible material.

Breathing Problems

Virtually no one has a perfectly straight or centered septum, and a slight deviation one way or the other is not usually problematic. If, however, the septum protrudes too far to one side or the other, it can interfere with the movement of air into and out of, as well as the draining of mucus from, the nasal cavity.

"Although a deviated septum can be genetic, it often results from some type of trauma—usually a broken nose," says David Caradonn, MD, DMD, of Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Division of Otolaryngology. "If the protrusion [of the broken bone] into the septum is minor, it will generally go unnoticed and will not cause any problems. If, however, the protrusion is large enough to either greatly or completely block one of the nostrils, a number of problems and related symptoms can result."

Symptoms of a Deviated Septum

Symptoms of a deviated septum include the following:

  • Difficulty breathing through the nose
  • Snoring caused by resistance of airflow through the nose
  • Chronically stuffy nose
  • nosebleeds

Treating a Deviated Septum With Mild Symptoms

Although normally invisible from the exterior, diagnosis of a deviated septum can easily be determined by a brief examination of the interior of the nose by an ear, nose, and throat specialist (otolaryngologist). Recommended treatment will depend on the severity of the symptoms. Possible treatments include the following:

Medication

When the symptoms are minor (intermittent stuffy nose, minor snoring), treatment usually consists of antihistamines, nasal decongestants, and cortisone containing nasal sprays. These medicines can help to clear mucus and prevent congestion building up in the nasal cavity.

Surgical Treatment for Persistent Problems

When symptoms become persistent and/or difficult to deal with (eg, chronic sinusitis, breathing problems, extreme snoring), your doctor may recommend surgery to correct the deviated septum.

Septoplasty

During septoplasty, the doctor pushes back the lining of the septum and cuts away the portion of the cartilage that is protruding into the nostril. After the cartilage is removed, the lining is moved back into place. Tiny splints are placed inside the nose to keep the septum in place until the septum heals.

Before deciding on surgery to correct a deviated septum, talk to your doctor about the possible severity of your symptoms, as well as the possibility of surgical complications.