Deviated Septum: How to Manage Symptoms

Using a saline nasal spray can often help with the chronic congestion that often comes with a deviated septum.

deviated septum

A deviated septum, as illustrated here, can produce symptoms that in many cases can be easily treated.

© Alila07 |

A deviated septum is a condition you may have had from birth, or it can result from a broken nose or similar injury. Regardless of its origin, a deviated septum can affect your breathing and lead to chronic congestion and sinus infections.

Treatments for deviated septum symptoms can be as simple as saline nasal spray can be effective. But first, it helps to understand exactly how this problem affects your health.

What Is a Deviated Septum?

In anatomy, a septum is a wall separating two chambers, such as the tissue dividing the right and left atria in the heart. In the nasal cavity, the septum is the cartilage that separates the right and left nostril inside your nose.

A deviated septum is the term applied to a septum that is off center. Most people have at least a slightly displaced septum, but it’s often benign and doesn’t affect breathing or cause any other symptoms. In more serious cases, the septum is so crooked that it makes breathing through one nostril very difficult. It can also lead to chronic congestion on one side of the nose.

“The most common causes of sinus problems are nasal allergies, a deviated or crooked septum, and chronic sinusitis, which can be caused by a combination of infection and allergic reaction,” says Mark A. Zacharek, MD, associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of Michigan.

Treating Deviated Septum Symptoms

If you don’t feel as though your breathing is compromised by your deviated septum but you do experience occasional bouts of congestion, there are simple treatment options. You can use a non-medicated nasal saline spray to maintain the health of the hair-like cilia in your nose. Cilia help trap bacteria, among other functions. A nasal saline spray can also help keep your sinuses moist, which keeps the mucus membranes from becoming inflamed.

Medicines for congestion—caused by a deviated septum, allergy or other condition—include antihistamines and decongestants. In general, though, you don’t want to use decongestants for long periods of time. Your body can become so used to them that when you stop, your symptoms can worsen. Decongestants also make some people jittery, which can interfere with sleep and concentration.

Antihistamines can have the opposite effect, causing you to become drowsy. These are medications primarily used to treat allergies, but they are sometimes recommended for traditional cold symptoms, too.

If, however, you battle chronic sinus infections and congestion, and you need more than a nasal saline spray or over-the-counter or prescription medications, there is another very common option for deviated septum treatment.

When Surgery Is the Best Option

A surgical procedure called septoplasty can help realign the septum and improve your breathing. It may also help reduce the number and intensity of sinus infections you experience down the road. If your breathing is truly impacted by a deviated septum, surgery may help improve your sleep health.

When you can’t breathe well while sleeping, you run the risk of sleep apnea, a condition in which your breathing pauses many times during the night. It can raise your blood pressure and increase your odds of having a stroke or other serious health problem.

Septoplasty is usually an outpatient procedure with a low rate of complications, but a high rate of success.

“It’s one of the most common procedures we perform,” says surgeon and sinus health specialist Jeremiah Alt, MD, a professor at the University of Utah. “It substantially affects patients’ quality of life, which has been shown over and over again that improving the way we breathe through our nose substantially affects how we feel in our day-to-day activities. And this is most likely partially contributing to the way we sleep and the way we get a good night’s sleep. If we can’t breathe through the nose, it forces us to breathe through the mouth and we may have more obstructive events and it can also potentially lead to what we call obstructive sleep apnea.”

See Your Doctor

Because many cases of deviated septum are present at birth, a person born with this condition may never know what it’s like to breathe normally and go long periods with sinus infections.

If you are congested frequently and suspect sleep apnea, ask your doctor whether a deviated septum may be the cause. It usually requires a simple exam of your nostrils to diagnose the problem.

Once you know what you’re dealing with, you and your physician can start to work out a treatment plan to help you start breathing easier soon.

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Jay Roland

Jay Roland has been executive editor of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory since 2017. Previously, he held the same position with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Advisor, since 2007. In … Read More

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