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Ear conditions


A cholesteatoma is an abnormal collection of skin cells in the space behind the eardrum (the middle ear). Cholesteatoma is non-cancerous and rare.

New skin cells in the ear canal grow to replace those which have died. Normally, the dead cells just flake off. In cholesteatoma, this process goes wrong, and the dead skin cells get trapped and build up. This build up is called cholesteatoma.

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 of the middle ear, called the ossicles.


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 affected.

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

In very severe cases, it may even wear through the skull, causing meningitis or brain infections.


Cholesteatoma is thought to happen over time when a build up of negative pressure causes the eardrum to be pulled back.

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


The main treatment for cholesteatoma is an operation to remove the abnormal skin growth. This helps prevent it from causing any further damage to the middle ear and the inner ear. The operation may also be able to improve your hearing.

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