Morphological variation and airflow dynamics in the human nose

Steven E. Churchill, Laura L. Shackelford, J. Nicole Georgi, Michael T. Black

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Airflow dynamics are recognized as being important to the functioning of the human nose in conditioning and filtering inspired air, yet these dynamics are poorly understood. Despite considerable research on airflow dynamics by otolaryngologists, respiratory physiologists, and toxicologists, major disagreements remain about the nature of airflow in the human nose. Specifically, there is little consensus about the character of nasal airflow regimes (laminar or turbulent) and about the major pathways of airflow through the internal chamber. Additionally, a number of features in the human nose have been argued to enhance airflow turbulence, thus increasing the exposure of moving air to the nasal mucosa and facilitating heat and moisture exchange in cold and/or dry climates. These features include: an inferior orientation of the nares; a nasal sill that is high relative to the floor of the internal nasal chamber; a nasal valve that is small in cross-sectional area relative to that of the internal chamber; and large, projecting conchae. The claim that these features affect airflow dynamics has never been tested. To clarify the nature of human nasal airflow and to test these claims of functional significance to nasal variation, we studied airflow across physiological flow rates using water and dye flowing through anatomically accurate acrylic models of human nasal air passageways (with adjustment of water flow rates to maintain dynamic similarity). The models were derived from direct casting of the nasal passageways of 10 Caucasian ("leptorrhine") cadavers (six male, four female). Measures of naris angle, nasal sill height, nasal valve area relative to internal chamber cross-sectional area, and relative projection of the inferior and middle turbinates were taken directly on the resulting casts. The relationships between aspects of nasal morphology and turbulent air flow were evaluated by examining the flow regimes (laminar, semiturbulent, or turbulent) at varying flow rates, with the expectation that the greater the development of the proposed turbulence-enhancing features the slower the flow rate at which flow would shift from one regime to another. Flow characteristics (both flow regimes and principal pathways) were highly variable within our sample. The relative projection of the inferior turbinate was the only variable that significantly affected the flow rate at which flow became turbulent. However, more projecting turbinates appear to laminate flow rather than to induce turbulence. Nostril orientation was moderately correlated with flow dynamics (with more inferiorly directed nares producing turbulence at slower flow rates), but this correlation was not statistically significant. Relative nasal valve area and nasal sill height were unrelated to turbulence in our models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)625-638
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Journal of Human Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2004
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Genetics


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