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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Cholesteatoma of the external ear canal: etiological factors, symptoms and clinical findings in a series of 48 cases

Hanne H Owen1*, Jørn Rosborg2 and Michael Gaihede1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, Aalborg Hospital, Aarhus University Hospital, DK-9000 Aalborg, Denmark

2 Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Dronning Ingrids Hospital, Postbox 3333, 3900 Nuuk, Grønland

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BMC Ear, Nose and Throat Disorders 2006, 6:16  doi:10.1186/1472-6815-6-16

Published: 23 December 2006



To evaluate symptoms, clinical findings, and etiological factors in external ear canal cholesteatoma (EECC).


Retrospective evaluation of clinical records of all consecutive patients with EECC in the period 1979 to 2005 in a tertiary referral centre. Main outcome measures were incidence rates, classification according to causes, symptoms, extensions in the ear canal including adjacent structures, and possible etiological factors.


Forty-five patients were identified with 48 EECC. Overall incidence rate was 0.30 cases per year per 100,000 inhabitants. Twenty-five cases were primary, while 23 cases were secondary: postoperative (n = 9), postinflammatory (n = 5), postirradiatory (n = 7), and posttraumatic (n = 2). Primary EECC showed a right/left ratio of 12/13 and presented with otalgia (n = 15), itching (n = 5), occlusion (n = 4), hearing loss (n = 3), fullness (n = 2), and otorrhea (n = 1). Similar symptoms were found in secondary EECC, but less pronounced. In total the temporomandibular joint was exposed in 11 cases, while the mastoid and middle ear was invaded in six and three cases, respectively. In one primary case the facial nerve was exposed and in a posttraumatic case the atticus and antrum were invaded. In primary EECC 48% of cases reported mechanical trauma.


EECC is a rare condition with inconsistent and silent symptoms, whereas the extent of destruction may be pronounced. Otalgia was the predominant symptom and often related to extension into nearby structures. Whereas the aetiology of secondary EECC can be explained, the origin of primary EECC remains uncertain; smoking and minor trauma of the ear canal may predispose.