Can Sinus Infections Cause Cancer?

Recently, I treated a patient with a family history of cancer. Her father had recently been diagnosed with the second different cancer of his lifetime. This time, the cancer was in his blood, while his last cancer had been in his colon. After surviving his first battle with cancer, he was cancer free until a blood test obtained during a routine yearly examination showed changes from a previous lab result. His cancer specialists are confident that he has an excellent chance for cure with this cancer as well.

The patient’s mother is a breast cancer survivor of 15 years. It’s reasonable for my patient to be concerned about her own health, given her family’s history. Since she has chronic rhinosinusitis, (long lasting nasal and sinus infections), she asked me if nasal and sinus infections can cause cancer. Wanting to ease her worries, I dug into the research on this topic to look for the answer. Here’s what I learned.

According to recent research out of UCLA, chronic inflammation in the body can lead to changes in the cells that may cause cancer. This study looked at patients with untreated reflux of stomach acid (GERD) into the lower part of the esophagus. When it is not treated, this leads to a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus, which, in turn, can lead to cancer of the esophagus. They also looked at ulcerative colitis, which can cause inflammatory changes to the bowel lining that lead to colon cancer. While not every patient with GERD or ulcerative colitis develops cancer, the microscopic chemical changes in the mucus membranes caused by these conditions can create the changes to the cells that eventually lead to cancer. Why does cancer occur in some cases and not others? It probably has to do with genetic factors that already put some people at a higher risk.

So, what does this mean for patients with chronic sinus problems? The chemical changes happening in the esophagus and colon are the same types of changes that happen inside the nose and sinuses during times of inflammation. Does this mean that patients with chronic sinus inflammation are likely to develop cancer?

It’s hard to say. On the one hand, a Medicare database study of patients with head and neck cancer revealed that the risk of developing cancer was 8 percent higher in patients with chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS) than those without. Another study, carried out in Taiwan, studied a group of patients with cancer in the back of the nose, and found a high correlation of nasal and sinus infections with the patients who had been diagnosed with this cancer. Both studies, then, would seem to indicate that people with chronic nasal/sinus problems are likely to develop cancer.

However, each of these studies looked at patients who had already gone through cancer, and they do not contain much information about the patients. They don’t consider age, family history of cancer, smoking and alcohol usage, or chemicals the patients might have been exposed to that could have affected the nose and sinuses. These are all risk factors which can greatly increase a person’s likelihood of cancer, so it’s impossible to know whether the rhinosinusitis was the biggest factor, or if it was something else. It is also not clear whether these patients had sinus problems and were later diagnosed with cancer, or if they were cancer patients who developed CRS.

It should be noted that CRS is a very common diagnosis. Across the globe, it’s a widespread ailment, and in the United States, more than 30 million people are diagnosed with chronic rhinosinusitis every year. Do most of these people go on to develop cancer? Certainly not. Therefore, to truly find out if there is a link between the two conditions, we need more research, with more precise parameters. Remember, correlation is not causation, and in this case, there’s really not enough evidence to support the idea that CRS leads to cancer.

In conclusion, it is my personal feeling that it is unlikely that patients who suffer with nasal and sinus infections are destined to be diagnosed with nasal, sinus or head and neck cancer. I have been in practice for 24 years and have cared for many patients with CRS and I can only remember a handful of patients I’ve ever diagnosed with cancer in the nose or sinuses. Therefore, my experience does not support these studies.

My recommendation to my patient is the same advice I’d give anyone who wants to reduce their risk of cancer. Don’t smoke, and if you do smoke, do your best to quit. Try to avoid breathing secondhand smoke, as well as any chemicals and fumes you might encounter. If you are exposed to smoke or fumes, use a saline rinse to cleanse your noise and sinuses of irritants. Limit the alcohol you drink, eat a well-balanced diet, get plenty of restful sleep, and drink lots of water.

Fortunately for patients in the United States, access to care is readily available for most people. If you have any concerns about your sinuses or nasal passages, see your primary care physician or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist for a full workup. You are not likely to be at risk for cancer, but it never hurts to be vigilant.

If you’re looking for an ENT specialist, consider Dr. Franklyn Gergits and the skilled ENT team at Sinus & Allergy Wellness Center of North Scottsdale. Our offices are equipped with the latest, cutting-edge technology, so that we can provide fast, effective treatment. What’s more, we pride ourselves in offering compassionate care to all of our patients. To schedule an appointment, call 480-525-8999, or contact us through our website.