Epistaxis: an update on current management
L E R Pope, C G L Hobbs
Postgrad Med J 2005;81:309–314. doi: 10.1136/pgmj.2004.025007
Epistaxis is one of the commonest ENT emergencies.
Although most patients can be treated within an accident
and emergency setting, some are complex and may
require specialist intervention. There are multiple risk
factors for the development of epistaxis and it can affect
any age group, but it is the elderly population with their
associated morbidity who often require more intensive
treatment and subsequent admission. Treatment strategies
have been broadly similar for decades. However, with the
evolution of endoscopic technology, new ways of actively
managing epistaxis are now available. Recent evidence
suggests that this, combined with the use of stepwise
management plans, should limit patient complications and
the need for admission. This review discusses the various
treatment options and integrates the traditional methods
with modern techniques.
attention.1Although our understanding of this
condition has improved considerably, the princi-
ple of packing the nose for a nosebleed has
changed little since Hippocrates used sheep’s
wool on pugilistic noses in ancient Greece.
See end of article for
Mr C G L Hobbs,
Otolaryngology and Head
and Neck Surgery, St
Southwell Street, Bristol
BS2 8EG, UK; chris.
Submitted 4 June 2004
14 September 2004
pistaxis, whether spontaneous or otherwise,
is experienced by up to 60% of people in
their lifetime, with 6% requiring medical
The incidence of epistaxis varies greatly with age.
There is a bimodal distribution with peaks in
children and young adults and the older adult
(45–65 years).2Anecdotal evidence suggests that
certain stereotypical groups are more prone (for
example, elderly women or young boys).
One of the primary functions of the nose is to
warm and humidify air. It therefore has a
profuse blood supply arising from both the
internal and external carotid arteries.
Epistaxis is normally classified into anterior or
posterior, but it can also be classed as superior or
inferior depending on
Broadly, the internal carotid (via the ethmoidal
arteries) supplies the region above the middle
turbinate while the remaining areas are supplied
by branches of the external carotid artery. This
includes the sphenopalatine artery, which sup-
plies most of the septum and turbinates on the
lateral wall. The interface between the two
carotid systems varies in position according to
the pressure in each one. There is also crossover
between the right and left arterial systems,
which can result in persistent nasal bleeding
despite unilateral arterial ligation.
Anterior bleeds are responsible for about 80% of
epistaxis. They occur at an anastomosis called
Kiesselbach’s plexus on the lower part of the
anterior septum known as Little’s area. Posterior
bleedingderives primarily from the posterior septal
nasal artery (a branch of the sphenopalatine
artery), which forms part of the Woodruff plexus.
The aetiology of epistaxis can be divided into local
and general causes (box 1), however most (80%–
90%) are actually idiopathic. An important con-
tributing factor, in addition to the prominent
vascularity and dual blood supply to the nose, is
that blood vessels within the nasal mucosa run
superficially and are therefore comparatively
unprotected. In most cases, it is damage to this
mucosa andto vessel walls that results in bleeding.
Spontaneous rupture of blood vessels may occur
occasionally, such as during extreme valsalva
when weightlifting. Although uncommon, it is
important to exclude neoplasia as a cause for
unexplained recurrent unilateral epistaxis.
The traditional management of acute epistaxis
entails identification of the bleeding point by using
a head mirror or other light source. If a bleeding
performed. If unsuccessful, further management
takes a stepwise approach—initially anterior pack-
ing with some form of gauze or sponge and then
failing this, more advanced techniques such as
compressive balloons or posterior packing. Finally,
arterial ligation or embolisation can be used to
stem intractable bleeds. Figure 1 outlines a
suggested management plan.
Epistaxis is a potential life threatening event. All
patients who are actively bleeding need full
assessment and resuscitation if necessary. The
clinical state of an elderly patient may deteriorate
Universal precautions should be worn before
starting any treatment including a facemask and
eye protection. Vital signs must be monitored
regularly. A full blood count should be taken and
blood group and saved. Studies have shown that
routine clotting studies need to be performed
only if there is a suspected clotting diathesis or
the patient is anticoagulated.3Fluid management
should be instigated if signs of hypovolaemia are
present or admission is required. During resusci-
tation, bleeding can commonly be controlled by
digital pressure over the lower soft cartilaginous
part of the nose. This is often best performed by
an assistant (nurse or healthcare assistant) and can be
improved by a cold compress or the patient sucking on ice.
Leaning the patient forward will decrease blood flow through
the nasopharynx, which is less uncomfortable for the patient
and will help to reduce swallowing of blood and its
Good nasal preparation is critical to elucidate and treat the
cause of epistaxis. The nasal cavity is often obscured by clots.
Thus immediately before examination a forceful blow by the
patient through the nose can clear these clots. Although this
action may restart bleeding it will enable improved access for
anaesthetic. A precautionary view of the cavity should be
undertaken by anterior rhinoscopy using a Thudicum’s spec-
ulum; this will enable stubborn clots to be evacuated by suction
and permit initial assessment of the bleeding point.
Local anaesthetic, ideally including a vasoconstrictor, should
be applied to the nasal mucosa over Little’s area (box 2). The
application method varies on the preparation, but most entail
either a solution applied on cotton wool or as a nasal spray.
Time should be allowed for the anaesthetic to work.
Generally, systemic analgesia is not necessary when inspect-
ing or packing the nose, although mild sedation (with a small
dose of diazepam) is often used in hypertensive or anxious
patients. Once adequate local anaesthesia is achieved, the nasal
cavity can be examined and treatment instigated to stem the
haemorrhage. Little’s area is viewed first.
Chemical cautery is achieved by a using silver nitrate stick
(75% silver nitrate, 25% potassium nitrate BP w/w) that
reacts to the mucosal lining to produce local chemical
damage. The technique entails applying the stick to the
bleeding point with firm pressure for 5–10 seconds. The
effect varies with concentration and exposure. Feeding
vessels can also be cauterised to limit recurrence. Careful
removal of excess silver nitrate helps prevent staining of the
vestibule or upper lip. If staining does occur, it should be
neutralised immediately by applying normal saline. Only one
side of the septum should be cauterised, as there is a small
risk of septal perforation resulting from decreased vascular-
isation to the septal cartilage. For this reason, we suggest a
four to six week interval between cautery treatments.
Electrocautery is usually performed in clinic by otolaryngol-
ogists under local anaesthetic; it consists of an electrical circuit
that heats up a metal loop. With this technique thermal energy
seals the bleeding vessel by radiation, not by direct contact. A
potential complication is heat damage to the anterior nares and
speculum under microscopic examination.
The nose should be packed if bleeding continues despite
cautery or if no obvious bleeding is seen. There are many
forms of anterior nasal packing although nasal sponges have
become predominant as they offer a simple and effective
mechanism for applying pressure to the bleeding vessel.
There are several types available.
Merocel is made of polyvinyl alcohol, a compressed foam
polymer that is inserted into the nose (fig 2) and expanded by
nasal cavity, applying pressure over the bleeding point. It may
also allow clotting factors to localise and reach a critical level,
thereby facilitating coagulation. Merocels are easy to insert
within a casualty settingand require minimal training. They are
rates when compared with traditional ribbon gauze.4
Rapid Rhino is an example of a carboxymethylcellulose
pack. This is a hydrocolloid material, which acts as a platelet
aggregator and also forms a lubricant on contact with water.
Box 1 Causes of epistaxis
– Nose picking
– Facial injury
– Foreign body
– Allergic rhinosinusitis
– Nasal polyps
– Benign (for example, juvenile angiofibroma)
– Malignant (for example, squamous cell carcinoma)
– Congenital (for example, hereditary haemorrhagic
– Acquired (for example, Wegener’s granulomatosis)
– Surgery (for example, ENT/maxillofacial/ophthal-
– Nasal apparatus (for example, nasogastric tube)
– Septal spurs or deviation
– Septal perforations
– Nasal sprays (for example, topical decongestants)
– Abuse (for example, cocaine)
– Coagulopathies (for example, haemophilia)
– Thrombocytopenia (for example, leukaemia)
– Platelet dysfunction (for example, Von Willebrand’s
– Anticoagulants (for example, heparin, warfarin)
– Antiplatelet (for example, aspirin, clopidogrel)
N Organ failure
– Liver (for example, cirrhosis)
310 Pope, Hobbs
Unlike Merocel, it has a cuff that is inflated by air and the
hydrocolloid or Gel-Knit is supposed to preserve newly formed
clot during removal.
Formal anterior packing
If nasal tampon packing fails to stem epistaxis, then one should
consider formal packing with ribbon gauze. Again, there are
many pre-prepared packs on the market, but the most common
are Vaseline or bismuth-iodoform paraffin paste impregnated
packs. These packs should be inserted under direct vision into a
locally anaesthetised nasal cavity. After nasal packing, the
patient is examined for ongoing bleeding through the pack,
from the contralateral nares or posteriorly. This is done using a
tongue depressor to obtain a good view of the oropharynx. If
any bleeding is witnessed, packing of the other side should be
considered before removal of the already inserted pack. This
may increase the tamponade pressure over the septum and stop
the bleeding. Because of the risks associated with nasal packing
discharge a haemodynamically stable person home with
packing in situ, for review in 24–48 hours, although this is
controversial because of the potential complications. If packs
are left in for more than 48 hours, then antibiotics should be
started to prevent toxic shock syndrome. Packs are usually
removed within three days.
Anterior packing is often insufficient to control vessels
bleeding from the posterior nasal cavity. These bleeds can
be difficult to treat and may require either balloon insertion
or a formal posterior pack.
This relies on either direct pressure or more commonly, the
accumulation of blood within the nasal cavity leading to
tamponade. There are several types that can be used; some
have been designed especially for epistaxis management. Two
of the important types are discussed.
This uses a standard urinary catheter that is inserted through
the anterior nares and passed back until the tip is seen in the
oropharynx. It is then inflated with 3–4 ml of water or air.
The catheter is pulled forward until the balloon engages the
Assessment and first aid
Initial medical review
Surgery Admit to ward
Visualise bleeding point
Box 2 Common local anaesthetic preparations
N Lidocaine injection (0.5%, 1%, or 2%) with adrenaline
(epinephrine) 1/200 000
N Cocaine topical solution (2% or 5%)
N Cocaine paste (10%)
N Lidocaine topical solution (5%) with 0.5 % phenylephr-
posterior choana. The nasal cavity is then packed anteriorly
with ribbon gauze or a nasal sponge. The balloon is held
firmly in place with an umbilical clamp at the anterior nares.
It is important in this case to protect the columella with a soft
dressing, otherwise it is susceptible to pressure necrosis.
Other complications include posterior displacement of the
balloon with potential airway compromise, deflation in situ
(which is more likely to occur with air inflation) and rupture
of the balloon, which when it contains water, could result in
aspiration. Recent evidence suggests that balloon rupture is
more likely with the use of paraffin paste.5It is important to
note the Foley catheter is in fact, not licensed for nasal use.
This is specifically manufactured for the treatment of epistaxis.
It has a postnasal balloon and a mobileanterior balloon that are
independently inflated (fig 3). Other specialised balloons
include the Simpson plug and the Epistat nasal catheter.
Formal posterior packing
In this rather uncomfortable procedure (hence it is normally
performed under general anaesthetic), a gauze pad is
sutured to a catheter inserted through the nose and using
the catheter, is manoeuvred via the oral cavity into the
nasopharynx so that it lodges against the choana. It is
important to protect the columella with a dental roll to stop
pressure necrosis. The patient should always be admitted to
hospital and consideration given to placing elderly patients or
young children in a high dependency or intensive care
environment for monitoring.
Any bleeding that fails to stop despite an escalation of clinic
room management requires surgical intervention. This
includes bleeding that continues after pack removal. Before
theatre, the patient needs to be haemodynamically stable. In
most cases surgical management requires a general anaes-
thetic, although in frail elderly patients, local anaesthesia
with sedation can be used. Surgical intervention can be
divided into diathermy, septal surgery, or arterial ligation.
The localisation of a bleeding point under general anaesthetic is
easier because of improved nasal access and instrumentation.
The use of bipolar rather than monopolar diathermy is
recommended, as there are reports of optic or oculomotor nerve
damage after the use of monopolar in6or close to the orbit.7
Septal surgery is sometimes performed to allow access to the
nasal cavity. As most haemorrhages occur from the septum,
raising a mucoperichondral flap during septal surgery can be
beneficial as this will decrease blood flow to the mucosa,
which often in itself stems bleeding. Surgery is also used to
correct a deviated septum or remove a septal spur, which may
be the cause of epistaxis. This occurs either by altering air
flow through the nose or in severe cartilage deformities, by
persistent mucosal irritation.
Sphenopalatine artery ligation
In cases of ongoing haemorrhage despite the above methods,
thisprocedureis normally attemptedfirst. It is performed under
direct rigid endoscopy and the vessel is normally clipped or
coagulated using bipolar diathermy. Its success rate is reported
to be better than other forms of arterial ligation probably
because it is an end artery with little collateral flow.8
Anterior/posterior ethmoidal artery ligation
This is occasionally required for severe bleeding from the
ethmoidal region and is traditionally performed via an
external ethmoidectomy incision, through a subperiosteal
plane on the medial orbital wall. An endoscopic technique
has been described9and also, more recently, an endoscopi-
cally assisted external approach.10
along the floor of the nasal cavity).
Correct insertion of a nasal tampon (note that the direction is
Box 3 Complications of nasal packing
N Failure to stem bleeding
N Toxic shock syndrome
N Blockage of
– nasolacrimal duct leading to epiphora
– sinus drainage leading to acute sinusitis
– nasal airway leading to hypoxia
N Nasovagal reflex: this reflex occurs during insertion of
a pack or instrumentation of the nasal cavity. It leads to
vagal stimulation, with consequent hypotension and
N Sleep apnoea, attributable to decreased nasal air entry
leading to hypoxia during somnolence
N Displacement of pack into oropharynx with risk of
acute airway obstruction
N Removal may induce bleeding
Sagittal view of the nasal cavity with a Brighton balloon in
312 Pope, Hobbs
Maxillary artery ligation
This is rarely performed now since the introduction of
endoscopic nasal surgery, but it has been shown to be
effective in 87% of cases.11The approach is a modified
Caldwell-Luc operation, through the posterior wall of the
maxillary sinus into the pterygopalatine fossa. The maxillary
vessel can be either clipped or diathermied. Complications of
this include devitalised gums and teeth, sinusitis, and
problematic intraoperative bleeding.
External carotid artery ligation
Ligation of the carotid artery for intractable epistaxis was first
reported by Pilz in 1869 (performed on the common carotid
artery in this case). It is a non-specific method of decreasing
blood flow to the nose and, studies have shown a long term
failure rate of 45%. This is because the nasal blood supply has
marked watershed areas supplied by the contralateral
external carotid.12In general, it should be considered a last
resort, useful in profound uncontrolled haemorrhage, when
the above methods fail.
OTHER MANAGEMENT OPTIONS
Sokoloff first undertook angiographic embolisation for
epistaxis in 1972.13Embolisation is routinely performed in
some centres as a means of treating intractable epistaxis. The
technique entails cannulation of the external carotid artery
and location of the bleeding point by water soluble contrast.
Coils, gel foam, and polyvinyl alcohol can then embolise the
causative artery. The success rate has been reported to be as
high as 87%, which is similar to arterial ligation.14The
technique’s limiting factors include; lack of specialist radi-
ologists and equipment, the inability to embolise ethmoidal
arteries because of the risk of blindness, false aneurysm
development at the insertion site, cerebrovascular accidents,
and imaging difficulties after nasal packing. Studies have
reported a complication rate of 17%–27%.15
Fibrin glue is developed from human plasma cryoprecipitate
and binds itself to damaged vessels. The technique entails
spraying a thin layer of glue over the bleeding site and can be
repeated as needed. A recent randomised trial has reported
that complications of local swelling, nasal mucosa atrophy,
and excessive nasal discharge were lower than the electro-
cautery, silver nitrate, and nasal packing group. The rebleed
rate was 15%, which is comparable to electrocautery.16
The invention of the Hopkins rod in 1960s has revolutionised
nasal surgery. Only recently has this new technology been
adapted for the treatment of epistaxis (fig 4).17–19The nose
should be prepared as described previously.
Examination of the nasal cavity is performed using a rigid
Hopkin’s rod endoscope (0˚or 30˚angle). Clots are removed
using suction, which will also elicit the bleeding point. It is
good practice to adopt a routine when examining the nasal
cavity, viewing the septum first. On location of the bleeding
point, electrocautery is used to seal the vessel. The authors
recommend a bipolar cautery device with integrated suction
tip to improve the field of view and increase efficiency of the
cautery. Nasal packing is only instigated if the bleeding fails
to cease after the procedure or if the bleeding point cannot be
identified. The patient should be kept under observation for
two hours and can be discharged home if no re-bleeding
occurs. A recent study showed that this procedure was
successful in treating 89% of patients with epistaxis with 74%
not requiring admission.19This reduction in the need for
admission, added to the benefits of not inserting a pack,
makes it a useful and cost effective procedure.
Hot water irrigation
The use of hot water irrigation is an alternative management
strategy for posterior epistaxis. Techniques vary, but essentially
a balloon catheter is used to close off the posterior choana and
water at 45˚C–50˚C is inserted into the nasal cavity. As well as
helping to clear blood clots from the nose, it probably reduces
local blood flow by causing mucosal oedema.20
Laser has proved to be particularly useful in cases of recurrent
epistaxis, such as those occurring in hereditary haemorrhagic
telangiectasia (Osler-Weber-Rendu disease). Neodymium
yttrium-aluminium-garnet (Nd:YAG) laser is commonly used
(via endoscopy), although the application of other lasers such
as argon or carbon dioxide has also been described.21
All patients with a history of severe epistaxis require a formal
examination of the nasal cavity to rule out a neoplastic lesion.
This can be performed before discharge or in clinic at a later
date. Patients should be given a leaflet showing first aid
procedures for epistaxis and simple precautions to decrease
recurrence including refraining from activities that may
stimulate bleeding (blowing or picking their nose, heavy
lifting, strenuous exercise) and abstinence from alcohol or
hot drinks that can cause vasodilatation of the nasal vessels.
To limit recurrent bleeds, topical antiseptic cream (Naseptin)
or petroleum jelly (Vaseline) can be prescribed, although its
efficacy is questionable.22
Patients with high blood pressure on admission need
assessment by their general practitioner after discharge from
hospital. Patient medication, especially anticoagulants, raise
concerns in management; although a prospective study
showed warfarin does not need to be stopped if its levels
are within therapeutic range.23Aspirin medication has
been shown to be independently associated with epistaxis
However, cessation of aspirin therapy
should be weighed up against thromboembolic complications
and the time delay between stopping aspirin and the return
of normal platelet function.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a significant expansion
in the options available for the management of epistaxis.
Traditional strategies like nasal packing have been supple-
mented by modern technology using the latest optic and
electrical devices. Treatment should ideally use a systematic
protocol, such as described in this review; starting with
simple procedures that can be undertaken in the clinic
environment and proceeding to endoscopic techniques for
more difficult cases.
Endoscopic electrocautery equipment.
MULTIPLE CHOICE QUESTIONS (TRUE (T)/FALSE (F); Download full-text
ANSWERS AT END OF REFERENCES)
1. Possible causes of epistaxis include:
Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC)
2. The following steps are appropriate in the management
of an 80 year old man with acute epistaxis:
(A) Pressure should be applied to the bridge of the nose to
help stop bleeding
After resuscitation, he should be examined in theatre
under general anaesthetic
A full blood count should be performed
There is no need to check for ongoing bleeding if an
anterior pack is inserted
If he lives alone, he can be discharged home with a
merocel nasal tampon in situ
3. The following are recognised complications of nasal
Optic nerve damage
4. In surgery for epistaxis:
Local anaesthesia can be used for elderly patients
Bipolar diathermy is safer
The maxillary artery is normally approached endosco-
Removing a septal spur may help
Ligation of the external carotid artery is useful as a last
5. In the alternative management options for epistaxis:
(A) Angiographic embolisation has a similar success rate to
Hot water irrigation is used for anterior bleeds
Patients are normally admitted after endoscopic elec-
A 0˚Hopkin’s rod is used in rigid endoscopy
Bleeding recurs in 50% of cases when using fibrin glue
L E R Pope, Department of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery,
Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge, UK
C G L Hobbs, Department of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck
Surgery, St Michael’s Hospital, Bristol, UK
Competing interests: none.
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314 Pope, Hobbs