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Ear problems


A cholesteatoma is an abnormal, noncancerous growth that can develop in the middle part of your ear, behind the eardrum. It can develop if part of the eardrum collapses.

Your eardrum sheds dead skin cells, which are normally passed out of the ear. If the eardrum collapses, it may create a pocket where the dead skin cells can build up and mix with ear wax and other debris to form a cyst-like growth.

If it’s not treated, a cholesteatoma can get bigger, causing damage to nearby parts of the ear such as the eardrum and the tiny bones called the ossicles.

You can get a cholesteatoma if the eardrum is damaged through an injury or infection, or after any kind of ear surgery.


A cholesteatoma usually only affects one ear. The most common symptoms are:

  • a smelly, watery discharge from the ear
  • gradual hearing loss in the affected ear.

Some people also have slight discomfort in their ear.

It can also lead to:

  • tinnitus – hearing sounds like buzzing or humming
  • a spinning sensation (vertigo), if the balance system in the inner ear is damaged.

Occasionally, the cholesteatoma can damage the bone covering the facial nerve, which can weaken facial muscles.

In very severe cases, it may even wear through the skull, causing meningitis or brain infections. Signs that damage is taking place include vertigo, weakness of the facial muscles and bad headaches.


If you have a cholesteatoma, you’ll need an operation to remove the abnormal skin growth and all traces of infection to prevent it from causing damage to the middle ear and even the inner ear. The surgeon will then try to rebuild the damaged middle ear, graft the eardrum and, if possible, restore your hearing.

You can find out more about treatment for cholesteatoma on the NHS website.