Understanding nosebleeds

Nosebleeds are unpleasant, and happen for a number of reasons. Most nosebleeds are relatively harmless, although very rarely they may be a symptom of something more serious. In most cases, simple preventative steps can be taken to try and reduce their frequency. In order to establish whether or not you should seek medical attention, it is helpful to understand why nosebleeds occur.

There are two broad types of nosebleed:

  1. Anterior – this means the bleeding has started towards the front of your nose
  2. Posterior – these are less common and start at the back of your nose

What causes anterior nosebleeds?

Anterior nosebleeds are more common, and are rarely a cause for concern. They result from the delicate blood vessels near the entrance to your nose bursting.

This may be due to physical causes, such as an injury or bump to the nose; blowing your nose very hard; inserting fingers into the nose (a common problem in small children) or nasal complaints such as a cold or sinusitis.

Environmental factors can also cause anterior nosebleeds. These include allergies such as hay fever; changes in altitude; rapid changes of air temperature; dry air or overuse of over-the-counter decongestant sprays.

Anterior nosebleeds are generally self-limiting.

More serious conditions

Posterior nosebleeds can be more serious. The blood is coming from larger arteries, located further back in the nose. Therefore, the flow can be harder to control. The blood is also more likely to run into the throat.

These nosebleeds can result from head or facial injury. Very rarely, they may be symptomatic of nasal tumours. Some people are more prone to this type of nosebleed.

Both anterior and posterior nosebleeds can be exacerbated by certain types of medicine, such as those prescribed for blood thinning (for example, aspirin or warfarin). Some herbal medicines, such as gingko biloba, can also increase the risk of bleeding.

People suffering from high blood pressure may have an increased susceptibility to nosebleeds. Nasal problems such as a bend in the middle partition of the nose (septal deviation) or chronic rhinitis or sinusitis also leave people more vulnerable to nosebleeds.

When to seek medical advice

Nosebleeds are rarely serious, and it is important to stay calm. You can apply pressure to the middle partition at the front of the nose by pinching the nostrils, and most nosebleeds will stop of their own accord. If you think you may be suffering from one of the more serious types of nosebleed, or you have been experiencing blood flow for more than 20 minutes, it is sensible to seek medical attention.

If you are experiencing frequent nosebleeds you may be referred to an ENT surgeon. Consultant ENT surgeon Mr Julian Hamann can investigate and treat nosebleeds. Treatment is often simply a matter of cauterising the ‘bleeding point’ in the nose, sealing it to prevent recurrence of the problem.