Last updated: April 19, 2021

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Cholesteatoma is a special form of chronic otitis media in which keratinizing squamous epithelium grows from the tympanic membrane or the auditory canal into the middle ear mucosa or mastoid. The presence of abnormal epithelium in an abnormal location triggers an inflammatory response that can destroy surrounding structures such as the ossicles. Cholesteatomas may be congenital or acquired later in life. Acquired cholesteatomas are usually associated with chronic middle ear infection. Cardinal symptoms are painless otorrhea and progressive hearing loss. Important diagnostic procedures include mastoid process x-rays, temporal bone CT scans, and audiometric tests. Left untreated, erosion of the surrounding bone by a cholesteatoma can lead to facial nerve palsy, extradural abscess, and/or sigmoid sinus thrombosis. Therefore, even if a cholesteatoma is asymptomatic, surgery is always indicated. Surgical treatment involves tympanomastoidectomy to excise the cholesteatoma, followed by repair of the damaged middle ear structures.

Pathophysiologytoggle arrow icon

Keratinizing squamous epithelium grows from the tympanic membrane or the auditory canal into the middle ear mucosa or mastoid air cells.


Clinical featurestoggle arrow icon

  • May be asymptomatic
  • Painless otorrhea; (scant but foul-smelling discharge from the affected ear)
  • Conductive hearing loss
    • Occurs late in primary cholesteatoma
    • Occurs early in secondary cholesteatoma


Diagnosticstoggle arrow icon


Treatmenttoggle arrow icon

  • Surgery is always indicated because of the risk of complications. [2]
    • Excision of the cholesteatoma (by canal wall-up or canal wall-down mastoidectomy) to control the discharge and create a dry ear
    • Reconstruction of the middle ear structures and sound-conducting apparatus

Complicationstoggle arrow icon

We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.

Referencestoggle arrow icon

  1. Dhingra PL, Dhingra S. Diseases of Ear, Nose and Throat. Elsevier ; 2014
  2. Roland PS. Cholesteatoma. In: Meyers AD, Cholesteatoma. New York, NY: WebMD. Updated: January 19, 2017. Accessed: February 15, 2017.
  3. Lustig LR, Limb CJ, Baden R, LaSalvia MT. Chronic Otitis Media, Cholesteatoma, and Mastoiditis in Adults. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. Last updated: April 27, 2017. Accessed: April 15, 2017.

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