Nosebleeds (called epistaxis) are caused when tiny blood vessels in the nose break. Nosebleeds are very common and affect many people at some point in their lives. In the United States, about 60 percent of people will experience a nosebleed in their lifetime. They can happen at any age but are most common in children around the ages of two to 10, and adults around the ages of 50 to 80.
There are two categories of nosebleeds. Anterior nosebleeds occur when the bleeding is coming from the front of the nose and posterior nosebleeds occur when the bleeding originates from further back in the nose, often where the source of bleeding cannot be seen without examination. Common symptoms can include:
Most nosebleeds are in the front part of the nose and start on the nasal septum, the wall that separates the two sides of the nose. The septum contains blood vessels that can be easily damaged. Irritation from blowing the nose or scraping with the edge of a sharp fingernail is enough to tear the vessels and cause a nose bleed. Anterior nosebleeds are also common in dry climates, or during winter months when dry, heated indoor air dehydrates the nasal membranes and makes the blood vessels more likely to rupture.
Causes of recurring or frequent nosebleeds may include:
It is important to try to determine if the nosebleed is anterior or posterior. Posterior nosebleeds are often more severe and almost always require a physician’s care.
Anterior Nosebleeds—When dry air is believed to be the cause of the nosebleed, it may result in crusting, cracking, and bleeding. This can be prevented by placing a light coating of saline gel, petroleum jelly, or an antibiotic ointment on the end of a Q-tip and gently applying it inside the nose, especially on the middle portion of the nose (the septum).
Follow these steps to stop an anterior nosebleed:
Should the bleeding continue after this, you should seek medical care. The treatment administered by a medical professional at this point may include cautery (a technique in which the blood vessel is burned with an electric current, silver nitrate, or a laser to stop the blood flow) or nasal packing.
Posterior Nosebleeds—More rarely, a nosebleed can begin high and deep within the nose and flow down the back of the mouth and throat, whether the patient is sitting or standing. Posterior nose bleeds differ from anterior nose bleeds because direct pressure on the outside of the nose will not stop the bleeding, and spraying the nose with a decongestant is less likely to work. It is important to seek prompt medical care if the bleeding does not stop to prevent heavy blood loss.
Posterior nosebleeds are more likely to occur in older people and people with previous nasal or sinus surgery or injury to the nose or face. Generally, treatment includes cautery and/or packing the nose. The nose may be packed with a special gauze, sponge, or an inflatable balloon to put pressure on the blood vessel; most of these need to be removed in two to three days. Sometimes the packing is an absorbable material and does not need to be removed. You should ask your provider what type of packing they used and if it will need to be removed by a professional.
Frequent Nosebleeds—If frequent nosebleeds are a problem, it is important to consult an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist, or otolaryngologist, who will carefully examine the nose using an endoscope (a pencil-sized scope) to see inside the nose before making a treatment recommendation.
Some tips you can follow to help prevent future nosebleeds include:
Copyright 2021. American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. Last reviewed April 2020.