Almost 80 percent of people have some deviation in their nasal septum, the sliver of cartilage and bone that divides the nostrils, according to the American Rhinologic Society (ARS). For some, the bend may be so subtle they're not even aware of it. But for nearly a quarter of those affected, the abnormality interferes with nasal function and quality of life. Here's some information on septal deviation and what you can do about it:

SymptomsThese may include nasal congestion in one or both nostrils, chronic sinus infections, frequent nosebleeds, snoring, sleep apnea and a loss of taste and smell; symptoms often worsen over time as the deviation grows. They may also be complicated by enlarged turbinates (bones that line the nasal cavity), nasal polyps, swollen adenoids or allergies. The only way to determine the exact cause of symptoms is a nasal exam.

DiagnosisPeople having difficulty breathing through their nose should see an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist), advises Roger Crumley, chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center. The ENT doctor will inquire about trauma (the most common cause of deviation), previous surgeries and symptoms. He then will examine your septum using a nasal speculum, a hand instrument that spreads open the nostril, and a nasal telescope, a tool that passes through the nostril to view deep into the nasal cavity. The doctor will also check for other causes of obstruction.

If the septum is the cause of discomfort, the doctor usually first recommends medical treatment such as a nasal steroid spray or over-the-counter decongestants, according to the ARS. If that fails, he may suggest surgery.

SurgeryDuring septoplasty, an outpatient operation, the surgeon will remove or reshape badly deviated portions of cartilage and bone. Afterward, a nasal splint or packing may be inserted into the nose for support and to prevent major bleeding. Risks, though minimal, include excessive bleeding, infection, tearing of the septum and loss of smell. Surgery is successful in nearly 90 percent of patients, according to Crumley.

Find it For more information on septal deviation and septoplasty, read the ARS fact sheet at http://american-rhinologic.org/patientinfo.septoplasty.phtml.

--Jeffrey G. Ghassemi