Understanding Your Nasal Turbinates

Nasal Conchae

Nasal cavity
Nasal cavity. Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG/Getty Images

Turbinates, which are also called nasal concha or conchae (plural), are a network of bones, vessels and tissue within the nasal passageways that are responsible for warming, humidifying, and filtering the air we breathe. Normally there are 3 turbinates including: superior (upper), middle, and inferior (lower). However, occasionally you can have a 4th turbinate which is called the supreme which is situated higher than the superior turbinate.

 In between each turbinate is space (known as meati), each with a name that coincides with the name of the turbinate that is directly above the space. These spaces form our nasal passageways which direct air flow through our nose.

Inferior Meatus

The inferior meatus is the space between the floor of the nasal cavity and the inferior turbinate. This is the largest of the air spaces. This passageway serves multiple purposes:

  1. The nasolacrimal duct empties any drainage from the eyes
  2. The head of the inferior turbinate, wall of the nasal passageway, anterior septum and This nasal passageway also helps to make up the nasal valve which includes the head of the nasal wall inferior meatus, and osseous piriform aperture makes up the nasal valve.

Middle Meatus

The middle meatus is the nasal passageway that lies between the inferior meatus and the middle meatus. This space is important for:

  1. Drainage of three of the paranasal sinuses: maxillary, frontal, and the front (anterior) ethmoid sinuses
  1. Airflow through the paranasal sinuses create the tones of our voices

Superior Meatus

The Superior meatus is the nasal space that lies between the middle meatus and the superior meatus. This is normally the top-most nasal passageway, however, occasionally there is also a supreme turbinate that is above the superior turbinate.

Functions of this passageway includes:

  1. Drainage of 2 of the paranasal sinuses: sphenoid and back (posterior) ethmoid sinuses
  2. Like the middle meatus, airflow through this passageway which interacts with sinus cavities helps to modify our vocal features.
  3. Mucus membranes of the superior turbinate (along with the upper part of the nasal septum, which divides the left and right nostrils) are lined with nerve endings which are used to interpret smell (olfactory).

Turbinates Regulate the Nasal Cycle

Every 1 to 7 hours, your nasal passageways undergo a cycle of constricting (shrinking) one turbinate while the other turbinate swells. This subsequently makes some of the passageways narrow, which restricts airflow, while enlarging the other airway, which improves airflow. During nasal cycle changes, you will not feel congested since the overall airway resistance has not changed.

The purpose of the nasal cycle is not fully understood but common belief includes:

  1. congested passageways (narrow) allow the glands to "recharge".
  2. congested passageways also are thought to allow for mucus to be removed
  3. constricted passageways (enlarged) allows for improved humidification and easier airflow

Turbinate Disorders

Turbinates can be associated with several disorders.

Oftentimes, the symptoms associated with these disorders are congestion.

Correcting Turbinate Disorders

When turbinate disorders need to be corrected, a turbinate reduction can be performed during endoscopic sinus surgery. This procedure requires general anesthesia and is typically performed in a same day surgery clinic.


Doherty, G.M. (2015). CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Surgery, 14e.  

White, D.E., Bartley, J. & Nates, R.J. (2015). Model Demonstrates Functional Purpose of the Nasal Cycle. BioMedical Engineering OnLine. DOI: 10.1186/s12938-015-0034-4

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