What causes nose bleeds?
Recurrent nose bleeds are very common and can range in severity from being a nuisance to being on rare occasions life threatening. The clinical term for bleeding from the nose is epistaxis.
Nose bleeds occur due to the bursting of tiny blood vessels known as capillaries that are found throughout the nasal cavity. Roughly 90% of bleeds start near the front of the nose in a small region called Kisselbach’s plexus. Kisselbach’s plexus is a collection of fragile blood vessels on the surface of the nasal septum (the wall that divides the left and right nasal passages) that is exposed to irritants, such as cold weather, dry heat, digital manipulation and trauma. These blood vessels can be easily broken by simple trauma such as excessive nose blowing, or they can on occasion rupture for no apparent reason. Bleeding that occurs towards the back of the nose (posterior) is less common and may be more difficult to control. If bleeding occurs on one side of the nose, it can sometimes drip to the back of the throat and be coughed up, or even pass through to the other side of the nose through the back of the throat or breaks in the septum.
Causes of nose bleeds can be divided into three categories, local, systemic, and idiopathic (unknown). Local causes, which are the most common, include nasal trauma, nasal dryness, and septal abnormalities. Trauma of the nose might be related to a nasal fracture, frequent nose picking, excessive nose blowing, or nasal surgery. Nasal dryness mostly occurs during winter months when patients live in warmer and dryer environments. When the nose is dry and irritated becomes more susceptible to bleeding. Abnormalities of the nasal septum include septal deviations (bending of the wall that separates the passages) and septal perforations (a hole in the septum). Such abnormalities can cause turbulent airflow in the nose which may contribute to nasal irritation, and subsequent nasal bleeding.
Systemic causes include various blood disorders and certain types of medications that may thin the blood. Patients with high or poorly controlled blood pressure are at higher risk for nasal bleeding because the blood vessels are more likely to burst when they are under high pressure. In addition, patients who take anticoagulants (blood thinning medications) are also at a higher risk. Some of the more common prescribed medications include Coumadin and Plavix, but there are many others. Many over the counter medications taken in high quantities can thin the blood, such as Advil/Motrin or aspirin. Other conditions associated with nose bleeds include liver disease (which makes platelets that are necessary for clotting not as effective), and primary bleeding disorders, such as Von Willebrand’s disease.
It is very important to know what other medical problems co-exist, what medications a patient may be taking, and family or personal history of bleeding or bruising to best determine the potential cause and treatment of nose bleeds. No matter what the cause of a nosebleed, one should apply pressure to the front of the nose when an active nosebleed is occurring. Holding pressure in this area for 10 minutes will put pressure on the capillaries that commonly bleed (Kisselbach’s plexus), and is the most effective way to stop the bleeding. Nasal decongestants such as oxymetazoline or neosynephrine may also be used, either directly sprayed in the nose or applied to a cotton ball then placed in the nasal cavity. Ice to the nasal regions can also reduce bleeding in some cases. If bleeding persists, medical intervention is recommended. One common procedure that can be done in the office setting is cauterization, whereby a chemical called silver nitrate is applied to the nasal vessels to help seal them up. If bleeding still doesn’t resolve, either an electrical cautery can be used, or various types of nasal packing can be applied to tamponade the blood vessels and stop bleeding. Usually these nasal packs need to remain in place for a few days, and although they may be uncomfortable, they typically have a 95% chance of stopping a nosebleed. Because nasal packs can sometimes cause infections, it is very important that patients be placed on an oral antibiotic at the same time. Nasal packing can be absorbable or non-absorbable.
Preventative measures include nighttime humidification, avoiding digital manipulation of the nose, and applying daily moisturizers to the inner nose. Common moisturizers that are effective are Vaseline, nasal emollients, and saline nasal sprays. Minimizing aspirin and Motrin as well as controlling your high blood pressure may also help to reduce nose bleeds. Resting and avoiding undue force in the nasal cavity can be effective, so we usually recommend 2-3 days of light activity and avoiding bending or lifting. If you experience recurrent nose bleeds, or have had a severe one that is difficult to stop, please consider an evaluation by a trained expert, i.e. Ear Nose Throat specialist, that can better evaluate the entire nasal cavity by performing a quick painless in office procedure called a nasal endoscopy to better determine potential causes and treatment options.
Opinions expressed here are those of myself, Dr. Daryl Colden. They are not intended as medical advice and cannot substitute for the advice of your personal physician.